Saturday, January 31, 2015

Free Spirited Hostelling.

After my epic and extended stay at the amazing BH2 at BPGC, I have yearned for more hostel experiences. Of course the hostels I now frequent are for travel purposes rather than a dorm during college. Hostels are and always will be a mixed bag. The places and the people have their quirks and characters that make them fun. It's a wonderfully communal way of spending a night. It is a cheap and convenient way to stay on budget when traveling alone. I've only stayed at hostels in the US so far, though I have heard it's more of a thing in Europe.

Hostellers are a motley group of people. But they tend to the more laid back, new age spirituality kind who talk about finding themselves, the universe conversing with their soul, karma of their past lives, etc. I must confess I rarely mention that I'm an engineer and have a office job. I think it stops conversation as I appear to be elitist. I have had numerous random experiences at hostels. I was offered weed on one occasion. Once my room had no floor but was just sand. Another time, the hostel had an outdoor hotub overlooking the Pacific, a million dollar view for $5. Then in this hostel above a nightclub, I had Kanye lullaby me to sleep. You have no idea who your roommates will be. I always carry ear plugs and eye covers so that I can zone out when I need the zzz's.

I think the best part is meeting people and listening to their stories of life, travel and adventure. These are people I'd never meet in my friend circles from a tech job and Church. It opens your mind and broadens your horizons. It enriches your life experience vicariously. You connect with a complete stranger over the most random thing. As an Indian, I'm the exotic guy who has lived their eastern spirituality. I politely mention that I'm Catholic but helpfully joke that I had a pet snake and rode an elephant to school as a kid. I once met a biker from NZ who biked in the Yukon territory and Alaska for months. Then there was this girl who moved from Wisconsin to Puerto Rico in search of finding a calling in the tropical paradise. I came across a Chinese girl who spoke better Spanish than English because of all her travels in Latin America. Once, a hostel host mailed me a $20 bill as a refund for the key deposit. Money I had thought lost after we had checked out before he had woken up. I was pleasantly surprised by his integrity.

Of all my hostel adventures, one will always remain etched in my memory. Last December, I was driving after dark on a cold rainy night on Hwy 101 in the remote NW corner of Washington state. The Google Maps voice said “You have arrived”. I thought to myself, “Where?”. Here I was stopped on a pitch dark highway. There was no sign of civilization. Suddenly I spotted a small sign that read “Hostel” and a narrow unlit driveway leading up besides it. I pulled up slowly to a small house with a dim porch light. I pondered whether I should go in or just drive off? I chose the former, thinking that if he has a website, he must be legit. Yeah, sound logic! An old man opened the door, which creaked on it's hinges. I greeted him nervously and peeped inside. It was his house. It was messy but looked clean. We exchanged what could pass off as pleasantries and I asked if he had any other guests. He replied none and mumbled something about off season. The last guest was a week before me. I took a deep breath, hoped he made it out alive and went to fetch my bag from the car.

The charge for the night was $13 and an additional 50 cents for a towel. I took the towel just so that I wouldn't be stuck with the number 13 in that creepy place. And there was the requirement of 20 minutes of chores which could be substituted if you paid an additional $5. I took the chores, which he said would be done in the morning. I inquired the time he woke up. He said he would be up when I was. I wasn't sure if that was funny or creepy. After some conversation I concluded that he was the kind of guy who was dissatisfied with the world for no specific reason and was trying to live off the grid. I retired early party due to fatigue and also to end the awkward sporadic conversation. The creaking and groaning of the house was magnified in the absolute stillness of the night. The creep factor was increased by the darknedd. I told myself to trust God and trust me. Somehow I managed to sleep peacefully.

The next morning when I woke up, Jim was already up. I asked him what my 20 min chores were. He told me to vacuum a few rooms. And he actually watched me do it as I tried to be diligent in getting under the tables and around the furniture. Finally I was done and I drove off into the pre dawn darkness. Back on Hwy 101, I wondered whether that was just a dream. Sometimes reality can be stranger than dreams.

I'm not sure if I'll ever make it back to Jim's hostel, but I'll definitely stay in hostels on my future travels. Hostels are a paradigm of “Life is a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get.” Unless of course it is a glass box, which is what Yelp can do sometimes. But still, I live in the hope of being pleasantly surprised on my travels.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Lost coast is found

Last Fourth of July, I celebrated Independence day by wandering wild and free on California's Lost Coast. It is a hike in paradise. The rugged, wild and desolate beaches are part of the last remaining stretch of undeveloped coastline of the West Coast of the US. The hike is one long walk on the beach with waves singing to you and the wind caressing you. The blue ocean shimmers in the summer sun and you thank your stars for your chance to be in heaven.

The incredible beauty moves you to wonder, to believe in something deeper, something higher. There's something magical about staring into the blue ocean, smelling the salt and listening to the waves. There's something mysterious about the fog clinging to the hillside and settling over the ocean. There's something soothing about feeling the soft sand under your feet as you soak in a gorgeous sunset. Someday life will be perfect like this, but today I'll settle for this temporary perfection.

The hike from Mattole to Shelter Cove covers 25 miles of magnificent scenery. The Pacific, as blue as it can be, on your right and soaring cliffs and golden hills on your left. You hike to the rhythm of the waves with rocks crackling under your boots. You hike in the soft sand, leaving behind footprints soon to be wiped away by the tide. You hike on trails through open grasslands. You cross numerous creeks and streams which make great spots for snack breaks. The seagulls skim over ocean, wild and free. The sea lions lounge in the sun, grunting as you pass by. The otters glide smoothly over the waves, the hare looks at you out of curiosity and the snake slithers away as you reach for your camera. The beautiful driftwood littering the beaches is more forgiving to your slow reflexes with the camera. Your day starts with the mysterious fog clinging to everything around you until the sun blazes through. You day ends with a magnificent sunset over the Pacific. Camping on the beach is a dream come true. You end a perfect day of hiking with a dip in the ocean and a rinse in a stream. Chow down some delicious pasta on the beach and soak in a beautiful sunset. The waves lull you to sleep as you dream of another day in paradise.

Some useful tips on the logistics of the trip. Get a map to know the locations of the creeks. I purchased the map by Wilderness Press. The creeks are basically where you can camp at night. The map also shows the 'impassable at high tide zones'. Make sure you check the tide tables for the day of your hike. I'd say for safety, you should not be in those zones 4 hours on either side of the high tide time. Obviously the ideal situation is hiking in the zones when the tide is going out. But if you have a tight schedule and the high tide times are not at the opportune times, use my 4 hour rule of thumb. We camped at Spanish Creek on the first night and at Gitchell Creek on the second night. That was about 10.5 miles on day, 10 miles on day 2 and 4 miles on day 3. Most people hike in the north-south direction as the prevailing winds in the summer are from the north west. For that, you need to park your car at Shelter Cove and take a shuttle to Mattole. Blu with Lost Coast Adventures was our shuttle guy. Super nice and friendly. The shuttle schedule depends on the tides so you can cross those high-tide-impassable zones at low tides. Call Blu to discuss your trip. As for gear, in addition to the standard backpacking gear, you might also need water shoes as there are no bridges across the streams. But this year being a drought year, the streams were running pretty low and we could ford the streams by hopping on rocks. And bring a giant thrash bag for all your gear that you can't fit in your tent. The overnight fog will give everything that is exposed, a thorough soaking.

Hope you find yourself at the lost coast sometime. Life is a beach, go play in the sand.

More pictures can be found at  

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Book Review: Sinner, The Catholic Guy's Funny, Feeble Attempts to Be a Faithful Catholic

Being a Catholic isn't easy. You have the devil, you have people and you have yourself getting in the way. Lino Rulli embodies the struggle of the guy next door living a Catholic life. This book makes you laugh, makes you cry and makes you cringe as you read Lino stumbling and fumbling his way through life.

Lino has an uncanny way of making you think in between his one liners. On soul mates "I can't imagine a loving God who counts the hairs on my head, loves me, and then says: 'I’ve created a soul mate for you.. good luck finding her.'" We have to trust God in being our wingman, but we have to be willing to take chances. On failure, "lots of people put their failures in the not-God's-plan category instead of the I-suck-at-that-category." We have to take responsibility for ourselves and suck it up sometimes. On temptation, "I fought, I struggled, I won-and I didn't give into temptation. Not exactly on my way to canonization, but I'm always grateful to God when I don't fall." We should celebrate the minor victories in our lives with God. On confession, "don't imagine you will confess something original to the priest. That's the sin of pride." This one cracked me up. Yes, the priest has heard every possible sin under the sun and the stars (if you prefer sinning by night).

Lino is brutally honest with his failings at finding a mate, with his pride after winning the Emmy, with his youthful misadventures (hilarious) and with his big nose. The chapter on him meeting the Pope is absolutely hilarious. I really wish I was there through that awkward episode. Or I wish JP-II wrote a chapter about his meeting with Lino. But the chapter also made me really want to visit the Vatican someday. Not that praying at the Vatican is any better than praying at home. But maybe it is just the ambiance that makes you feel closer to God.

This book has confirmed that "In the evening of life, we will be judged on love alone." (St John of the Cross). At the end of my life I want Jesus to say, as Lino writes, "Eternal life goes to Daniel. Well done my good and faith full servant." Lino makes Catholicism seem like a simple yet profound journey. I think I will see my faith in a more joyful way from here on.  

You can also check out his talk show at

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Puerto Rico - Explore beyond the shore

Running on the beach free as a bird, with the sun and wind in the my back, then a rainbow pops up over the ocean, then pouring rain, followed by a dip in the warm ocean as the rain abates and all is fresh again. A wonderful memory. And many more from the Enchanted Isle. How about listening to reggae music on boat, sipping a Pina Colada, gazing at the turquoise blue Caribbean sea, with the smell of salt as the breeze gently caresses your skin?

I spent two weeks in PR. The first week was planned by me, the second week by the snow storm in NYC which canceled my return flight. Some nice memories and some not so nice. I won't talk about the must see or do. That will depend on what floats your boat and you can find guide books for that. I used Lonely Planet, for the record. This is a travelogue about my experiences and opinions.

I spent days at the beach, where everyone has a beach body. No, I don't call them beach bodies just because they were bodies on the beach. Frankly, I had never seen so many beautiful people at one place at the same time. I worked on my tan. If you say I am too brown to need a tan, I ask you, why do black people sun bathe? I camped at the beach. It was wonderful to go to bed to the sound of the Coqui frog and refreshing to rise to sound of waves. And there were countless Pina Coladas, from roadside stands to upscale restaurants. It is my new favorite cocktail. It is summertime in a glass. I once ordered a Cuba Libre for breakfast. “Would you like coffee or juice with that omelette? Nope, a Cuba libre please.” It was 8am! After all I was in the rum capital of the world.

The bio bay tour at night was the highlight of the trip. Quite otherworldly. It was like being in the movie Avatar. The water sparkles as you paddle your kayak or run your fingers through the water. It glitters when you hold it in your hand or sprinkle it around you. It feels like magic. And snorkeling in the ocean was fun too. Though not as colorful as the stuff I had seen on TV, still memorable as it was my first time. And the caves were mysterious and eerie. Nature is beautiful in so many different ways. Just when you think you've seen it all, here you are left open mouthed yet again.

I loved laying on the sand as it rained. I enjoyed walking the cobblestone streets of San Juan, lined with beautiful Spanish architecture. I explored the lush green countryside and the gazed at the deep blue ocean. PS, to see those calm turquoise Caribbean waters, visit in summer. In winter, the sea is too rough. Bummer. And I will remember kind souls who helped me find where to get off from the bus and the cab driver who came back late at night to return shoes I had left in the car.

A note to lone travelers. It is much more fun and easy to meet people for company and cost sharing if you stay at hostels and campgrounds rather than hotels. Hostels have a motley crowd of fun peeps, hotels have (at least at the hotel I was put up) snobbish uptight people.

Some more notes or more like complaints. Public transport is terrible. Bus schedules are almost non existent. And those publicos work only if you have all day to spare. Once, a publico went to someone's house as a detour while
we patiently waited twiddling our thumbs. Bikes and bike lanes are rare. You might get an unfriendly vibe, especially outside San Juan, if you speak in English. And sometimes, they will not speak a word in English. Hello sign language. All food seems to be fried. There are no bookstores. The bugs and humidity can be a lethal combination. Everyone is slow to react to everything. Drivers are crazy. I had a fear of speed bumps. Until I overcame so many in PR. Cabs don't have meters. Ok I am done.

Traveling, like life, is a box of chocolates. You never what you'll get. But isn't that the glorious uncertainty of life? Go out there and make memories. I promise the good ones will get better and the bad ones will fade away with time.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Musings of an Indian Tourist

You may have read or heard about India, or seen pictures and videos, but nothing prepares you for the sea of humanity that greets you as you walk the streets of the big cities. The sights, sounds, smells and tastes can excite, stimulate, inspire and leave you in awe. I soaked it all in like an idli soaking in sambhar. This was my first time as a tourist in India. I had lived in India for most of my adult life, but I had never traveled as a tourist. And what better place to start off my India Diaries than the Golden Triangle of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. Last month, I finally got my chance with three of my best friends.

North India is steeped in history. Stuff I wasn't unaware off, as I had read my history books well. But being there in person and touching the artifacts takes you back in time. You can imagine and relive the glory days of India. Stories of bravery and justice. Legends and tales of war and love. It can instill a sense of pride and a feeling of hope, that maybe India might one day again be the envy of the rest of the world. The highlight for me was the Taj Mahal. It sits on the banks of the Yamuna, serene and beautiful amid all the chaos. You hear it speaking to you, telling you a story. The marble beauty looks delicate, almost fragile as it shimmers in the sun. But you know it has stood there for hundreds of years, standing proud and aloof as eras have come and gone, mesmerizing countless souls who came seeking her beauty. It is truly timeless.

But as a tourist, you are greeted by more than monuments from the past. There are a lot of characters, who for the better or worse, add color to your trip.

The pestering 'guides' – You can ignore, argue or plead with them to leave you alone. Nothing will work. Some look genuinely annoyed when you call them guides. They say there are students. I am not sure how that is supposed to be better. Maybe next time one of us should wear a hoodie that says 'All Purpose Guide' on the back. I wish there were more signs and information at all the historical sights, so that the guides wouldn't circle us like vultures the moment we get out of the car. Pro tip, read everything in advance or get a guide book if you are interested in the details of the places you visit.

The posers – We had a great time observing young guys posing in some outlandish stances. Movie stars would be put to shame. I can say India has a bright or at least a stylish future. On the other hand, the older folk were the grumpy Indians. Not sure if they have all become followers of Tard, the grumpy cat, or if they are unimpressed by digital cameras. Maybe there were used to posing for paintings and I suppose you can't smile for hours on end.

The hawkers – If guides are the appetizer vultures before the trip, hawkers are the desserts. I credit them for being hustlers. They will try to sell cheap plastic as marble, claim that their souvenir changes color when wet (just a darker shade on being asked for evidence), try to guilt you into buying something by saying 'madame likes' by pointing to the lady in the group. A hawker on the road divider took the cake. He tried to sell me underwear while crossing the road. I suppose just in case I soiled myself as that bus hurtled towards me while I crossed the road. And I see how it is good business. I thought I got a good deal on what looked like rare marble carved elephants. He asked for Rs 1500 for each, I got 3 for Rs 2000. This was after I started to walk away and then he called me back. You know, the whole nine yards of bargaining. True to Murphy's Law, I found the same pieces at a reputed fixed price shop (Choki Dhani) for Rs 450 each. I suppose all that badgering and pestering does work on unsuspecting first time tourists.

Guards – They assert their authority either out of frustration stemming from all the the unruly visitors always doing something stupid or out of the hope in squeezing some cash out of you. Planking or doing yoga in front of the Taj is considered disrespectful and one of the guards asked us to delete the pictures and threatened to throw us out. Incessant whistling and yelling with a sour look doesn't help their image either.

And we have a short 'Only in India' section.
  • Where when we couldn't find a restaurant and called them for directions, they told us to wait where we were and an escort showed up a few minutes later.
  • Where when you ask for directions, they will say they don't know, but tell you to go straight anyways.
  • Where depending how long your shorts are, you may or may not be allowed inside. Above knees is a no go, but two inches longer and you are good to go. Also Fedora hats are considered as a sign of respect as they cover your head but going without covering your hair is disrespectful.
  • Where foreigners pay 10-25 times the price and Indian pays for entry to the major landmarks. How do they know who is a foreigner? They ask you to prove you are Indian if you look 'suspicious'. I got 'carded' once. Thankfully I had my Indian DL on me. N.E. Indians probably have a hard time with this racial profiling. One group of Asian looking teens abused a guard in Hindi and told him that that should prove their Indianess.
  • Where you take pictures of a monkey and then are pestered to no end for the 'monkey picture fee' by the handler.
  • Where the horn is assumed to be a sonic blaster that will magically disintegrate all the traffic in front of you.

And a few observations and tips for fellow tourists.
  • Get ready to be pestered for tips everywhere. If you look remotely touristy, or have a foreigner in your group, get ready to be badgered for tips all the time. We once got asked for tips at bathroom in a restaurant because someone handed us soap and paper towels. Be prepared to ignore everyone.
  • For some reason, we always asked a foreigner to take pictures of our group. Either because they were probably least likely to run away with our camera or they looked most competent.
  • Get a cab for the day as that will work out cheaper than on demand cabs and autos and also, less hassle than driving and parking your own car.
  • Stay alert at all times. You never know what random scene or fun experience you might miss. Also it is good for your personal safety.
  • Don't have too tight of a schedule. Traffic might be bad, lines might be long. Plus, rushing through might result in a sterile experience. India is about feeling it. And feelings take time.
  • Be polite and patient with authorities. Everyone likes feeling important. Budget some time and energy for that purpose.
  • Be careful when paying in cash. You might be 'accidentally' short changed. Despite Indians' prowess in Math, for some reason you might get Rs 100 back when you pay Rs 1000 for a Rs 400 item. If possible, provide exact change.
Go ahead, make your own adventure. India is calling, where are you? YOLO!

Thanks to my friends Niki, Nikhil and Sivram for making this trip so much fun.