Author Archives: aleavitt77

Tea with Celine Dion

After Kerala’s backwaters we headed east for the hill country.  Munnar is set in the mountains surrounded by waterfalls and tea and cardamom plantations with cool, fresh air.  It was most pleasant and turned out to be a perfect place to spend Christmas in India.

Munnar is a small town in Kerala, though the surrounding area is generally all referred to as Munnar.  After nearly five hours of driving from the backwaters, much of it rather jarring, we checked into Casa del Fauno, our home for the next four nights.  I have included pictures below and details on the property in the Practical Info section.

Sidebar: near Kochi there was a cop going up to every driver with a little brown box and asking them to blow into it.  Random, low-tech breathalyzer, at 9:15 am.

As I write this we have already visited Madurai and I am now in Mumbai, thus confirming how comparatively relaxing were our first nine nights in India!  In Munnar, we did two half-day activities and spent the rest of the time reading (I finished 4-Hour Workweek and put a nice dent in The Kite Runner), writing, mellowing out and listening to Christmas carols.

Sunday morning we were picked up by a jeep for a half-day tour up to the Kolukkumalai tea estate.  The scenery was gorgeous but the ride was brutal.  Bring Advil, and I think Jenni would advise doubling up on bras.  We rode in a Mahindra, Land-Cruiser style jeep up into the mountains on some path that was a mix of dirt and large stones.  You could not drive this route without a jeep or truck.

Our driver was from the area and knew everybody.  While most conversations I have observed seem to take three times as long as I’d expect, with our man it was the opposite.  He would just quickly shout things out at pretty much every person we passed.  And he LOVED the camera.  He would offer to take a picture of us and then take five more of our surroundings, fidgeting always with the zoom.  He was about making things happen, and I liked him.

After climbing more than an hour, we arrived at a ridge with views across the cloud-covered valleys below.  It looked like we were in an airplane, or Jurassic Park.  Just beyond here is the aptly named Echo Point.  The simple pleasure of a great echo is ageless.

We passed by a few women working the tea plantation seated on the roadside for a food break, and they pointed out a couple nilgiri tahr at the top of the hill above us.  The nilgiri tahr is a rare mountain goat found in these parts (see more in Practical Info, below).  A sprinkling of back damage and touch of sore bum later, and we arrived at the tea factory.

Kolukkumalai claims the title of the highest organic tea estate in the world.  We took a tour of the small factory where the process still involves much manual work supplementing English-built machines dating back 50-100+ years.  Converting tea leaves to tea is a seven-step process.  I won’t bore you with all the details, but these steps are withering, rolling, sieving, fermenting (oxidation), drying, fibre extraction and grading.  The withering takes place in long troughs upstairs where hot and cool air blows the leaves alternatively, after which they are fed into chutes and the remaining steps occur downstairs.

On the way home we stopped for lunch for our umpteenth paratha (I’m sure you’ll read “paratha” many more times) and a little curry sauce.  This cost Rs 75 for two!

The whole tour we did not see any other white folks.  Munnar is a popular destination for middle class Indians looking to escape the heat and enjoy the hills.

After we returned it came up that Jenni and I had each taken a liking to this song but hadn’t said anything because we didn’t think the other would understand.  Jenni did a little internet sleuthing and found a link.  Kind of corny but so soothing…enjoy!  Jenni was ecstatic playing this over and over that afternoon.

That night we made new friends (a man from Thrivandrum living in Beijing, and two of his friends) and a group of locals regaled us with Christmas carols, Indian style.  I knew that Kerala had more Christians than most of the country, but I did not appreciate the extent.  On our backwaters boats were pictures of Jesus, ditto the jeep’s mirror ornament and we have seen many churches.  Casa del Fauno constructed a manger for Christmas Eve.

We also heard “So This is Christmas” by Celine Dion the first few times on Casa’s stereo.  Casa had maybe eight different holiday songs that they kept playing, but none more so than Celine.

Monday we walked the cardamom plantation with Anoop, the kind and soft-spoken property manager.  Cardamom grows in bunches of plants which themselves produce bunches of pods close to the ground.  After harvest the pods are dried before being sold at wholesale.  The property and surrounding area also include bananas, mangos, coconuts, hibiscus, jackfruit, coffee and several flowers.  It is most lush and beautiful.

While on the tour we also saw their lily-graced reservoir, Anoop pointed out a recent elephant footprint that was about the size of four basketballs, and we met some ladies breaking for food who were so warm and friendly.

Anoop told us the workers get paid Rs 250/day plus food, accommodation and school for the children.

We continued down the road and passed a man with his goats speaking on his mobile.  Then we left the pavement and crossed a hillside with ancient pygmy rock houses before ascending some steep rocks to reconnect with a different road.

A handful of smiling kids and kittens later, we returned to the Casa and later enjoyed a perfect sunset over the hills.

I enjoyed the food at our hotel and fell in love with this spicy pickled mango sauce.  Also, there was an endless supply of crisp papadums each lunch and dinner.

Tuesday we relaxed and had a bottle of mediocre Four Seasons shiraz before/with our Christmas Eve dinner.  We met a fun family from England and the mood was jovial with a warm fire (wood and a coconut shell towards the end) and many fireworks.  One of the staff threw those loud poppers until the whole bag was gone.  Jenni had the honor of cutting the fruit cake, and the stars were excellent.

But the highlight was definitely good ole Celine.  After Anoop had played So This is Christmas twice in the span of three or four songs, we eyed him going back to fiddle with the stereo.  I gave Jenni the fist clenched, elbow tucked “yessssss!!!!!” sign and he saw me, then proceeded to play Celine again.  Caught red-handed he came over and smiled and said sheepishly “I like this song very much.”  It was adorable and we had perhaps our best laugh of the trip.

We departed on Christmas and the staff insisted on taking pictures with us.  The drive down to Madurai was beautiful and spirited, on a rough mountain road with many hairpin turns and areas where landslides had covered half the road with rock or simply made half the road disappear.  Plus, an elephant crossing sign.

Munnar was beautiful, lush and relaxing.  Often I had to remind myself I was in India.  If you are looking for a stereotypical Indian cultural experience this is probably not the place, but to see a calm and peaceful side of this amazing country it is a good choice.

Practical Info

Transport: From our backwaters stay a bit south of Kochi, it took four hours by car to reach the town of Munnar and another 45 minutes to Casa del Fauno.  We paid Rs 3,400.  The last 1/3+ of the drive is on winding and often rough roads.  There are buses to Munnar but I do not think a train, and you will need private transportation to get around the area.  As all over India, your hotel or guesthouse can likely arrange tours and local and onward transport.  If given the option, it might be worth having your destination arrange the transport as that increases the likelihood your driver can find the place.

Accommodation: Your first key decision is whether to stay in the town of Munnar or the surrounding areas.  Munnar itself did not appear particularly charming but may have more budget options and offer a convenient base for exploration.  If you want more attractive environs, I recommend staying outside of Munnar.

We stayed at Casa del Fauno which is about 25 km beyond Munnar (coming from Kochi), closer to the town of Chinnakanal.  It was a (modest) splurge as we wanted a comfortable, peaceful environment for the holiday.  Casa del Fauno is a restored bungalow on the Peak Gardens cardamom plantation.  There are three rooms in the main house and some cottages just downhill.  The main house is lovely and cozy with nice hardwood floors and high wood ceilings and a wood-burning fireplace.  It felt like being in a friend’s home.  Our first three nights we stayed in the Deluxe Room in the main house which was spacious and opened to a common patio overlooking the small lawn and valley and mountains beyond.  This had already been booked for our fourth night and we were promised the Elegant Room also in the house but instead (for the same price) we got the honeymoon bungalow.  This was similar to our Deluxe Room but slightly larger, more private and with a large terrace overlooking the hills.  WiFi is only available in the main house, and may only work effectively in the Deluxe Room which is next to the router.  Breakfast is included and freshly made tea or coffee is available throughout the day.  Tasty Keralan lunch is served for Rs 250 and dinner costs Rs 500.  If you want alcohol you need to request it in advance and someone will go to the store to purchase it.  Casa del Fauno does not take credit cards.

We also considered staying at Windermere Estate, Anearangal Camp at Suryanelli, Siena Village and British County (run by the Tourist Desk with offices in Kochi).  Siena Village is well-reviewed though we passed the property and it is more in a town vs. Casa del Fauno which was really set in the forest.  Nearby our hotel are The Wind and Spice Tree.  Our driver also mentioned Club Mahindra.  Stanley Wilson (tour operator out of Kochi who booked our backwaters trip) runs a 3 day / 2 night tour for Rs 11,000 that might be a good option if you want to be efficient and economical with your time.

Activities: Popular activities include tea and spice plantation visits, the tea museum in town, scenic tours (e.g. to Top Station), trekking and visiting one or more of the region’s national parks and wildlife sanctuaries.  The famed Neelakurunji plant grows on the mountainside here and flowers once every 12 years.  My book says that late 2018 is the next bloom.

Our jeep tour to Kolukkumalai cost Rs 1700.  We had the jeep to ourselves and it could have seated more, though I do not know if the price would differ.  We had to pay Rs 100 for a road maintenance fee on the way, and one can only imagine what the “roads” would be like without maintenance.  At Kolukkumalai, it costs Rs 100 each to tour the factory.

Eravikulam National Park is considered the place to see the nilgiri tahr.  Chinnar Wildlife Sanctuary is also in the area.  We read and heard that Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary may be disappointing.  Attukad Waterfalls look impressive, though I think pictures you will see were probably taken in the rainy season.

Books

One of the many enjoyable aspects of long-term travel is I get to read a lot more…for pleasure.  I am starting a new post that I will update periodically to list the books that I have read (or am reading) since our journey began.  Note that many of these authors have corresponding blogs where you can get a taste for the concept without buying/reading a whole book.  And if you have suggestions for books you think I would enjoy, please do let me know!
The Lean Startup – a very popular book relevant for both new entrepreneurs and established companies launching new products, among others…as the title suggests, the goal is to figure out if your business is viable and if so start and grow it without betting the farm…advocates practices like continual testing of assumptions, metrics that are both measurable (of course) but also meaningful, etc.

Investment Biker – older book by Jim Rogers, partner of George Soros at the Quantum Fund with legendary returns…as Amazon says, it is “the fascinating story of his 1990 investing trip around the world by motorcycle, with many tidbits of hard-headed advice for investing in foreign markets.” while not infallible, he is quite prescient and it is a good read.
Delivering Happiness – the Zappos story, a book about building the best customer service business and having fun in the process.  Tony offers some neat ideas for managing employees and creating the right culture.  I enjoyed it a lot and many of his philosophies align with my own.
Behind the Beautiful Forevers – book about the Mumbai slums.  Bill Gates said, “It reads like a novel by Dickens, but is a real-life depiction of the challenges hundreds of millions of people face every day in urban slums. It’s also a reminder of the humanity that connects us all.”  The tales of corruption are truly horrifying.

Business Stripped Bare – Richard Branson book about how he got started with Virgin and his relentless focus on brand.  If you do not define your brand, someone else will.

Long Walk to Freedom – Nelson Mandela’s autobiography.  His patience, tolerance, sacrifice and humility are quite the inspiration.

The 4-Hour Workweek – another very popular book, Tim aims not only to inspire you to examine your professional and personal lives but he gives step by step instructions for freeing your time and generating income.  At first I was lukewarm because it seemed like another book heavy on philosophy (which I don’t really need since I already made the decision!), but then Tim proceeds to offer a wealth of resources for starting businesses and using outsourcing both professionally and personally.

The Kite Runner – per Amazon, Khaled Hosseini offers “an educational and eye-opening account of a country’s political turmoil–in this case, Afghanistan–while also developing characters whose heartbreaking struggles and emotional triumphs resonate with readers long after the last page has been turned over.”  I thoroughly enjoyed it, and great fiction is just what Madurai called for.  I think I particularly like historical fiction for the simultaneous escape/repose and learning.

Going Home!

We left White Sands National Monument and passed the sharp, dramatic Organ Mountains.  In this area the traffic lights are all horizontal, I guess due to the wind?

Tucson is backed by nice mountains and here we saw our first In-N-Out since leaving California nearly three months ago.  Despite the temptation, we held out for our traditional coming home meal.  La Quinta hotel in Phoenix was a splurge that even had internal hallways!

Friday was the last day of the trip and the excitement was palpable.  Will we make it all the way back with no accidents or traffic tickets?!  In Phoenix we saw our first signs for Los Angeles, confirming the final stretch.  Jenni did a great job deejaying several California-themed songs…of course starting with Biggie’s Going Back to Cali and followed by tunes like Phantom Planet’s California, California Love by 2Pac, Hotel California, etc.

Much of the drive between Phoenix and Palm Springs is very pretty, and south of the 10 near Tonopah is a nice mountain.  I have driven to the Palm Springs area many times but never approached from this direction.  We descended quite a hill down to Indio.

We made it back to Los Angeles at 1 pm, having driven just under 12k miles.  And it was literally 75 and sunny.  We closed with a bottle of Moët, just as we began our first night camping at San Simeon.  For some fun stats summarizing our three-month road trip, see the post here that we wrote at that time.

November 8, 2013 (Friday)

White Sands National Monument

This is a magical place in southeast New Mexico where gypsum dunes backed by southwestern-looking mountains give an otherworldly feel.

After Carlsbad and Guadalupe earlier in the day we skirted El Paso and then drove north on highway 54 with good mountain views.  There are various military installations around here, including the White Sands Missile Testing Area which forces the closure of the Monument and roads periodically, so be sure to investigate.

I was shocked when we had to pass through a border patrol road block.  I never realized I could be stopped and my car searched when I was not trying to cross the border.  We encountered this again on the 10 Freeway driving back to Los Angeles.  Each time, the officers looked at us, asked if we are US citizens and then said go ahead.  I have often lamented my pale skin because I cannot blend in as much while traveling.  Some have that “Mediterranean” look where they might be from South America or Europe or the Middle East…not me.  But at these border patrol stops I was mighty happy to be pale whitey.

Visitors to White Sands usually stay in Las Cruces or Alamogordo, we chose the latter which is closer to the Monument.  It is packed with chains.  Our Days Inn was another hotel lacking internal hallways, and had some pretty shady characters with bloodshot eyes hanging about.  Nobody showed any disrespect, and I admired Jenni for being willing to stay places like this with no complaints.

Thursday was another cool, crystal clear day.  Shortly after leaving the hotel we passed a sign warning not to pick up hitchhikers because there are detention facilities in the area.  Jenni wanted to try anyway but I held firm.  We stopped in at the visitor center for information and a great orientation video.

These are the largest gypsum dunes in the world.  Some of the nearby mountains are rich in gypsum and the rain and snow melt dissolves it into water that flows into this basin which creates a lake.  The water then evaporates leaving behind big, soft crystals which the wind scatters and breaks down until it is fine, powdery gypsum.

In the desert there is much fascinating flora and fauna, often not visible to the casual observer.  For instance, the video told us that after rains brine shrimp can emerge and lay eggs which might lie dormant as long as 100 years before hatching with new water.

Jenni was thrilled at the opportunity to sled on the dunes so we bought a sled at the gift shop and a little wax.  Even though it was 45 degrees out we just had to drop Sven’s top.  It feels like a winter wonderland, with the paved road turning to sand necessitating plows.  It took great restraint not to pull an EB in the wide-open parking lots.

We walked in a bit on the Alkali Flats Trail for some sledding and ski-jump practice.  Jenni was giddy.  Then over at the backcountry camping parking area we walked up on the dunes and Jenni found a million dollar bill plastered with Jesus praise.  Odd, we thought.  Then we saw an older man with a camel, a pair of dogs and some film makers.

It turns out he spreads the million dollar bills all around and they were making some kind of documentary.  I find it a little strange to both proselytize and litter in a national monument, but what do I know.

If you get the chance, I recommend spending at least a couple hours in this unique and stunning environment.

Practical Info

The Days Inn at Alamogordo was fine but a little dodgy.  There are nicer hotels up the road.  If you are coming from the west, you would probably want to stay at Las Cruces.

The sled at the visitor center cost $17 and then you can return it for $5 back.  The refund is priced brilliantly, just like wedding rentals.  Ranger-led walks take place around sunset but we were long gone before then.

Entrance to the dunes is $3/person and our National Parks pass worked.  Of course you should bring water, sunglasses and perhaps a compass if you want to get too far off the road.

November 6-7, 2013 (Wednesday-Thursday)

Carlsbad Caverns, Guadalupe Mountains National Park and West Texas

Carlsbad Caverns are most impressive with a many-football-fields size huge space loaded with eerie stalactites, stalagmites and other formations 750 feet below the earth’s surface.  It is hard not to use the word “cavernous” when describing the features!  Guadalupe Mountains National Park is beautiful and home to the highest point in Texas at…8,750’!!  Had you asked me before this trip to guess Texas’ max elevation, I would have aimed far lower.

On the drive from Austin we passed a handful of wineries before Fredericksburg and saw many signs for peaches.  Fredericksburg itself had a nice-looking Main Street where I grabbed tasty iced coffee at Java Ranch.  That was about as exciting as it got.  There is hardly anything from here to Fort Stockton where we got gas, after which we passed Pecos which lays claim to the first rodeo.  This is oil and gas territory and we saw countless rigs lit up at night.

Route 720 connecting over to the National Parks Highway was a little gnarly at night but we made it safely to our hotel located at the turnoff to Carlsbad Caverns, and picked up an hour on the time change.

We awoke Wednesday to clear skies and crisp 40-something degree air.  The Caverns visitor center is seven miles up a winding road.  Various tours (in the main caverns and further afield) are offered but we decided to take the elevator 750 feet down for a self-guided walk around the Big Room.

The formations and general enormity are really something.  The temperature down there is in the mid 50s all year long.  I think the loop is about 1.25 miles which we leisurely completed in about an hour and quarter.  To see more and sweat a bit we walked back up which took 35 minutes.

One of the special attractions are the Mexican free-tail bats that swarm out of the cave at sunset to hunt for insects etc.  We heard they can consume half their body weight in a single night!  Sadly we just missed them as they are usually present only from March to October.  It might be worth scheduling your trip during these months to catch this spectacle.

While there are some other activities, it seems to me that one day at the Caverns would be sufficient.  MAKE SURE you have enough gas and water because we passed a sign stating it would be 130 miles until the next available services.

We continued down the road to Guadalupe National Park.  There are a few different entrances and areas with different features; we struggled between McKittrick or Dog Canyons.  The canyons are known for foliage around this time.  In the end, we kept it simple and went to the main entrance at Pine Springs.  Were it earlier in the day we would have tried to hike to the top of Gaudalupe Peak, but it gets dark out pretty early so instead we took the trail part of the way to a lovely view point and then headed back.

We passed a few people on the trail in the span of a couple hours…a delightful experience!  Air pollution is often a problem in the summer but we had clear views with 60 degrees and a nice breeze.  These mountains long ago were a marine reef when the area was an inland sea.

Our drive from here was beautiful and really felt like the middle of nowhere.  Doing 85 with the top down through the high desert listening to Marriage Of Figaro was sublime.

We skirted El Paso as we were heading back north to stay in Alamogordo before visiting White Sands National Monument.  I think we did not miss much and that El Paso is probably a moderately scary place.  At the gas station I had to lift a plastic cover to access the credit card slot, presumably to keep out all the sand and dirt that blows around.

Seeing relatively remote places like Guadalupe and western Texas is one of my favorite things about a round-the-US drive.  Tomorrow it got even better…

Practical Info

We stayed at the Rodeway Inn in Whites City, New Mexico, which seemed to be about the only place really close to the park entrance.  It was adequate, with a large room but poor WiFi.  There are far more options in the town of Carlsbad but that is about 20 miles further away.  Bring supplies or buy them in Carlsbad as services are very sparse in this area.

If we had more time we would have liked to check out Marfa, Texas as well as Big Bend National Park.

November 5-6, 2013 (Tuesday-Wednesday)

One Pen, Please

P1030927

We planned 3.5 weeks in India, and most of our time was TBD but for two places: Varanasi and the backwaters of Kerala.  I had read that spending time on a boat in the backwaters was a relaxing experience that also offered a glimpse into village life in southwest India.  My expectations were high, and I was not disappointed.

I arrived in Kochi fully intending to arrange a two-night motored houseboat out of Alleppey, about an hour and a half south.  There are many options for a backwater experience including a day trip on a public ferry between Kollam and Alleppey.  My comments on all except the trip we did is from reading and word of mouth, so I will write as though it’s fact but I cannot confirm.

Alleppey is by far the most popular place for booking houseboats, and these days there are hundreds if not more than a thousand.  Many of these are fairly luxurious with air conditioned bedrooms and an upper deck with sofas.  It sounds great, but word is at least at this time of year the Alleppey area has gotten so crowded that you might wait in a line of boats to make a turn.  And the water is oily.

In Kochi we popped into Walton’s Homestay to see if they arranged backwater tours, and Mr. Walton fortuitously directed us a couple doors down to his friend Stanley Wilson.  Stanley told us that he worked for years in Alleppey, but that the original intent of a relaxing float had become a victim of its own success.  As more and more tourists, both domestic and foreign, wanted a houseboat tour, the boats became bigger and more luxurious and the area more crowded and polluted.  He offered a simpler and more eco-friendly alternative.

Stanley arranges punted boat tours from a village about halfway between Kochi and Alleppey, with solar power during the day when the boat is out on the water.  Punted means that men propel the boat by pushing long bamboo poles on the water bottom.  Except when we passed through a canal lined with stone walls, when the boat men disembark and pull the boat using a rope.  They do this because punting is hard work, as Jenni and I both learned when we gave it a try.

There is no air conditioning and no upper deck, but also no noise.  Stanley promised our money back if we saw more than three other boats, and I am happy to say he still has our money.

After an hour drive from Kochi, we arrived in the village and boarded the boat at 10:30 am.  We were accompanied by two boat men and Manu, a great cook who speaks English very well.  The boat is made of wood and bamboo and has a simple kitchen in back, a basic bedroom and toilet with sink, and a front area with a dining table, some comfy lounging chairs and a side table.  The front is covered so you do not roast in the direct sun all day.

As we glided through the backwaters we passed between wider and narrower channels, surrounded by palm trees and many birds including ducks, egrets, cormorants, storks and kingfishers.  We saw tiger prawn farms and men in canoes laying out fishing nets in a circle.  There were lots more Chinese fishing nets like those we saw in Kochi.

The villagers onshore always stared and almost always waived and said hello.  Kids were full of smiles and relentlessly asked for “one pen, please.”  So if you can fit them in your luggage, bring a boatload of pens to throw to these adorable youngins.  And one group of boys who walked alongside our boat for a while said they love Justin Beiber, so maybe bring some Belieber paraphernalia while you’re at it.

While much of India is frenetic, the backwaters epitomize relaxation.  Jenni and I each commented that we could not recall the last time we felt so relaxed…perhaps on the second half of our honeymoon in the Maldives.  The food was delicious and enormously apportioned.  Coffee and tea were offered multiple times.  We had fresh fish with each lunch and dinner plus rice, okra, curries, freshly made chapati or paratha and watermelon, pineapple or banana for dessert.

The first night we drank a bottle of Sula chenin blanc that we purchased in Kochi.  We knew Sula from the bubbly we had the first night of our honeymoon last year in Jodhpur.  The winery is located in Nashik in the state of Maharashtra, India’s burgeoning wine region.  Time may tell, but for now Napa and Bordeaux ought to rest easy.

The one thing about this arrangement that may be better on the Alleppey boats (I am not sure if it is the case or not) is that at night we are anchored yet also docked back at the village.  In other words, the boat is pointed out towards the water so you still get some of the feeling of sleeping out on the water, but it is not the same as being anchored in the middle of a lake.  On the bright side, when docked there is electricity so you can charge devices and you can take their dugout canoe for a spin.

We could also hear music and fireworks both nights, as if to remind us this was still India.  But the noise subsided before bed time.  Some of the fireworks were so loud.  Remember that if you are in India and it sounds like war is breaking out, stay calm.  Most likely it is not.

On our first day before lunch the boat docked across a wide waterway and we walked five minutes to the Arabian Sea.  There were so many colorful wooden fishing boats and I helped push in a new arrival loaded with mackerel and catfish caught in a chicken wire like net.

On the walk over one of the boat men pointed out a fruit tree that looks exactly like mango, only this one he said is poisonous.  Good to know…

We had made arrangements with Stanley to spend the first day and night on the boat and the second day onshore and sleeping in the village home stay.  We so enjoyed being out on the boat that on Saturday morning we called an audible and switched to the one of their three boats that was free that day.

As I wrote above, I have no personal experience with a motored houseboat from Alleppey and I imagine it could be wonderful.  Among other things, two-bedroom houseboats are offered which is not so at Stanley’s village.  These boats might also anchor out in the water, which sounds nice.  If you are interested in going that route, this post from globetrottergirls.com seemed sensible and helpful.

Our taxi from Kochi cost Rs 600 and each night on the boat was Rs 4,000 with all meals included.  Had we stayed in the village that night would have cost Rs 2,500 without AC or 3,000 with AC.

It is worth noting this was a good reminder that sometimes you just have to trust people.  We paid Stanley in full in advance.  This is slightly unusual, but he came recommended from a hotelier who seemed trustworthy and was recommended in my guide book (the hotelier, that is), and Stanley has a permanent office on a busy tourist street in Kochi.

Two nights on the backwaters was perfect for relaxing, reading and writing.  I made it through 500+ pages of Mandela’s book Long Walk to Freedom.  If you want a quintessential south India experience, I highly recommend unwinding here for a couple days.

You can find Stanley at www.wilsontours.co.in, stanley.wilson@rediffmail.com, (+91) 98474 76750, or the old-fashioned way on Princess Street in Fort Cochin

December 19-21, 2013 (Thursday-Saturday)

Texas: Austin

Drive friendly my arse

Drive friendly my arse

Yes, I am in India right now.  But I must finish my US posts for some peace of mind!

I visited Austin last March for the first time for Josh’s bachelor party and loved it, so I was happy to return for Jenni’s inaugural appearance.  This time was a tad tamer.

We drove straight from New Orleans, and you know Texas is big when the first exit you see on the 10 Freeway is # 878.  Despite the welcome sign suggesting that driving friendly is the Texas way, I would say the drivers on this leg were undoubtedly the most aggressive and consistent left-lane-for-no-reason offenders of our entire road trip.

Our first night we sought a quick bite after a long day and ended up at Surf N’ Turf Po Boy.  It is more of a bar with lots of TVs and Skee-Ball and a lively atmosphere for the Texans MNF game.  They were out of fried oyster and the buffalo shrimp was good but paled in comparison to the firecracker shrimp po boy we had at Parasol’s in New Orleans.

Monday was one of the very few rainy days of our trip so we erased any thoughts of renting bikes.  We crossed under I-35 to the grittier part of town for an excellent, cheap, authentic Mexican breakfast at Juan in a Million.  I got the machacado and the migas breakfast tacos and they were so good.  Chips and salsa at 10 am is a nice touch.

Austin has several pockets of hip and/or fun areas, including dirty 6th, west 6th, east of I-35, 4th street, Rainey, Red River around 7th and South of Congress.  We hit this last one first, parking by Elizabeth to walk around.  It is a great stretch of several blocks with restaurants, bars, funky shops and vintage looking signs.  More in “Practical Info” below.

This is also one of the many Austin neighborhoods with several food trucks.  These are very popular here, and is with Portland they are slightly more permanent vs. those in Los Angeles that actually drive around each day.

From here we passed Hula Hut on the lake, a fun place for beverages on a sunny day, and took Scenic Road near the water through nice neighborhoods.  We parked on Mt. Bonnell Road and ascended the ~100 steps of Covert Park to the highest point in Austin at 775’ elevation.  This spot has nice views of downtown and the river with some spectacular homes.

Covert Park

Covert Park

We continued through the University of Texas campus which is nice if a little more urban than I realized.  Oh, on my last visit I had breakfast at the Torchy’s Tacos by campus and it was awesome.  Though Franklin was on tomorrow’s agenda, I figured why not double up on BBQ so we lunched at Iron Works, which I wrote about here.  On my last visit I ate at the Salt Lick in Round Rock, which was a fun outdoor place that I’d locate behind Franklin and ahead of Iron Works on the spectrum.

Dinner at Chuy’s was better than Hangover 3 on Jenni’s computer.  It has some bright moments but the trilogy’s temporal order certainly matches quality.  At Chuy’s I tried the Texas Martini which is a margarita in a martini glass rimmed with salt and jalapeño stuffed olives.  The meal was solid overall, and when they bring chips to your table be sure to ask for the creamy jalapeño sauce.

After dinner we met Sam’s friend Jamin on Rainey Street, which stands out in a city that oozes cool.  Within a couple blocks are perhaps 10 houses that were converted into bars/restaurants.  Most have substantial outdoor space and there is also a food truck square.  I would be sure to check this out.

Our final day in Austin lasted much longer than expected due to the crazy line at Franklin BBQ, but as I explained in detail in my BBQ Post it was worth it, and then some.

Capitol dome

Capitol dome

Practical Info

Accommodation: We stayed at the Extended Stay Hotel at 6th and Guadalupe because it was reasonably priced and well-located.  The Driskill is a classic property with a fantastic location, and there is also a W.  There are a couple spots on South Congress and I’m not certain which looked interesting, but I think it’s Hotel San Jose.

Areas:

South of Congress…some food spots that caught our eye include Amy’s Ice Cream and Hopdoddy.  Uncommon Objects has tons of antiques.  The Big Top Candy Shop had a most impressive selection, including things like pimento olive chocolate almonds and gummy fried eggs.  Allens Boots has an astounding selection of cowboy boots and attire.  Nearby is Barton Springs Pool, a very popular natural springs swimming area which wevwould have visited were it not cool and raining.

Rainey…we had drinks at Bar 96.  Kaitlyn had recommend G’raj Mahal food truck, which is so popular that it has now taken over one of the old houses.

Dirty 6th: refers to 6th street east of Congress which is packed with bars and at times nears a Bourbon Street feel.  Though technically east of Congress, the Driskill is a classy hotel with a bar and restaurant.

West 6th: refers to 6th street west of Congress which also has several bars and restaurants but a slightly older and more mellow crowd.  I enjoyed the Rattle Inn on my last visit.

4th Street: also calmer than dirty 6th, on my last visit I liked dinner at Peché and drinks at Hangar Lounge.

November 3-5, 2013 (Sunday-Tuesday)