Indian visa madness, food adventures, and a wee bit of luxury in Kuala Lumpur

Our visit to Kuala Lumpur was supposed to be a short stopover between Sydney and Kochi, India, where we were meeting my sister Lisa. As this was to be her first travel adventure halfway around the world, I’d planned to arrive before her so that we could make sure everything was in order and pick her up from the airport. However, thanks to the glitchy visa application website of the Government of India (GOI), which failed to process payments, my visa was not approved in time for our flights. 

To make matters worse, although my Chase Sapphire Reserve visa card offers trip interruption insurance, a rep with an irrepressibly cheerful voice I spoke with said that our missed flights would not be reimbursed, because our case represents “a change of plans” which are not covered. (Ironic, since I was trying to stick with plans.) I will report back here whether this absurdity is actually the case.

But the biggest problem of all was that, as time wore on, I was getting knots in my stomach thinking that my sister would arrive alone in India and feel scared.

There was a silver lining to all of this, however. Given the lower cost of living in Kuala Lumpur (56% cheaper than Sydney, according to expatistan.com), as well as sponsorship of our travels by Elise’s wonderful godfather, Tony, I was able to book much nicer accommodations in KL than I had in Oz. For the first time, I used “infinity pool” as a search term on booking.com, lol, since Elise had been longing to try one out, and found one at the Royale Chulan Hotel. I learned too late, however, what every 10 year-old apparently knows: it’s a “real” infinity pool only if it has a glass wall. But the indoor skating rink(!), fabulous buffet, and very helpful manager more than made up for that.

One thing in particular that struck me about the Malaysian people is that they are extraordinarily empathetic about the loss of loved ones. Many asked where Elise’s dad was, and when I told them that he had died of cancer in 2015, each and every one of them stopped what they were doing, softened their voice and expressed sincere condolences. A taxi driver even waited until I had finished telling a few stories, saying “To get back to what you told me, I am so sorry about his passing.”

After two days there, we moved to The Majestic Hotel to be closer to the center of town. As Marriott members, we got upgraded to a suite. As we walked in, Elise squealed with delight and ran all around the room patting things – I’m guessing to make sure they were real. She immediately got in the tub for a bath, and then put on a robe and chatted with her friends in Europe. Truth be told, after a week in a Sydney youth hostel where cleaning staff seemed to ignore the restrooms that required the most attention, I was ready to follow suit.

As the visa saga wore on and we needed to stay longer, we tried a third hotel, Traders, which was connected via long underground passageways to the impressive Petronas Towers which lit up the night sky like giant faceted gemstones. They were splendid, but looking up at them from the ground near the entranceway, I shuddered, thinking of the Twin Towers in NY, and wondered whether the conspicuous consumption taking place in the Western-style stores there made them a target for terrorist attacks. Comforting, however, was the fact that Malaysia appears to have had far fewer attacks than neighboring Indonesia, and the State Department travel advisory designates it a benign Level One, i.e. exercise normal precautions.

The towers are so tall my lens couldn’t capture them in one shot, so I took multiple shots from the ground up and auto-merged them in Photoshop. Still, the towers look much shorter in this photo than in real life (and Elise looks like post-blueberry Violet in Willy Wonka).

The Towers are featured in a number of movies, such as the 1999 film Entrapment, which set the climax on the skybridge.  170 meters above the ground, the skybridge is not actually attached to the towers, but slides in and out of them to prevent breaking as they – gulp – sway several feet towards and away from each other in high winds. Other fun tower trivia includes the fact that, in 2009, French urban climber Alain “Spiderman” Robert scaled to the top of Tower Two with his bare hands and feet in just under 2 hours. His first two efforts had ended in arrest. How on earth did they nab him, I wonder? Yank him in with a hook? Point a gun at him at the 60th floor? Git in here, Spidey, or we’ll shoot.

The hotel buffets and Twin Towers restaurants provided opportunities to explore Malaysian food, including the national dish, Nasi Lamak, made of coconut rice served with anchovy hot chili sauce, fried peanuts, cucumber, and egg wrapped in banana leaves, a tidy, healthful, delicious, portable snack, and one we may well include in the travel cookbook we plan to create. We also tried Sayur Lodeh, veggies in coconut curry, and tasted various Chinese steamed buns stuffed with sweet potato, mushroom, and red bean paste. Strangely, the food Elise most likes seems to resemble her headband puffs.

The cultural highlight of our visit, though, was the Museum of Islamic Arts – a spacious, airy, modern building with five domes and gorgeous ceramic tapestries flanking the entranceway.

The embellished Qur’an and manuscripts were works of high art.

Elise particularly liked the gallery of miniature mosques and thought of how her dolls might visit them. She also had a nice science lesson at the exhibition on healing traditions in Islamic medical manuscripts where she learned that human arteries, veins, and capillaries, when laid end to end, can stretch around the Earth two to four times (a fact that would later be heartening to me as I waited for many smaller veins to open up to compensate for blood clots in my calves).

Back at Traders Hotel, Elise put the finishing touches on her drawing of a little town in a magical world, which has towering cherry trees the size of Singapore’s Supertrees with blossoms as large as beach balls, which the people of the town hang on their doors for good luck. Visitors to the town like to take boat rides in the lake at night, where the moon shines brightly and the cherry blossoms fall into the water releasing pixie dust. The central structure is the mayor’s house. To its right is a swanky high-rise hotel and an orphanage.

In the meantime, my Indian visa finally came through…the day after Lisa had arrived in India all by her lonesome. And yet, when the hotel car I’d booked for her failed to show, she grabbed a taxi like a pro, checked into the hotel, and then slept for a whole day, safe, comfortable, and blissfully unaware of all my unnecessary worrying.

My article with tips on making world travel affordable

For those seeking to make world travel affordable, you might consider eliminating expenses at home, being flexible in your destinations, skipping the travel agent for flexibility in booking flights with discount airlines, securing large frequent flier mile sign-up bonuses with travel credit cards, and using certain booking services to save on lodging.

My article appeared in the Mount Holyoke Spring Quarterly, which is dedicated to international stories. If you care to read the issue, click HERE.

The artwork for my article was created by twins Anna and Elena Balbusso, award-winning Italian artists who’ve illustrated over 40 books and whose work has appeared in the New Yorker, NYT, Le Monde and many other publications. What I love about the illustration is that it features Elise and me facing each other with a zigzag path between us with animals and structures representing our travels – a lama at Machu Picchu, where Elise fed and petted lamas, a monkey like the ones we saw at an animal sanctuary in Bolivia, a seal like the ones we swam with in the Galapagos. There is also a pagoda representing our travels in Japan and an elephant that symbolizes our upcoming visit to an elephant rescue in Thailand. I inquired with their publicist about purchasing the rights to the artwork, but the $5K price tag would cut too deeply into our travel budget, so for now, we will simply enjoy looking at the illustration in the MHC Spring Quarterly.

Funny ferries and border shenanigans

When our bus driver told us that we’d need to board a ferry en route to La Paz, we assumed we’d be on the same ferry as our bus – after all, when we’d traveled from Berlin to Copenhagen, the entire *train* boarded the ferry. But by now we should know not to make assumptions! In this case, the bus got its own big, flat gondola, and the humans boarded a separate fume-choked (but fast) motorboat. It was a riot watching the slow progress of our bus across the lake – it looked top-heavy and likely to tip over at any moment.

Speaking of surprising crossings, as dual US/German citizens, we wanted to enter Bolivia as Germans since Americans are charged an outrageous $135 for a visa and Europeans $0 (which, by the way, is hurting tourism in Bolivia). At the border, we got our exit stamps in our US passports, and then presented our German passports. Since Bolivian immigration officials would need to see evidence of our presence in a South America, we needed to get Peruvian stamps in our German passports. But the shady Peruvian immigration officials passed us a little handwritten note that said: “USA $135 Germany $65”. It was outright extortion, because Peru does not officially charge visa fees. But $65 each was better than $135 each, so I paid up, but was not happy.

Gearing up

Our entire lives will be on our backs while we travel round the world. As we are a mother-daughter team, we won’t have a strong guy to help carry the load. That means that each item we bring must not only be ultralight, but also multifunctional and high-tech. e.g. fabrics that breathe, dry fast, repel moisture, and keep us warm when it’s cold and cool when it’s warm, such as Merino wool and bamboo. We’ll also be trekking through Zika territory, so we need tops, pants and hats that are anti-mosquito. RE shoes, we each get max 2 pairs: a sturdy, but lightweight trekking shoe, and an everything-else shoe. I’ve already ordered mine – a surprisingly sleek pair of black Teva’s – which will be my beach, shower, and “dress up” shoe, lol. Besides my slim laptop and mirrorless camera, our camping gear will add the most weight to our packs. I tallied the weight of our existing ultralight gear to the ounce and discovered that I could shave off 4.93 pounds by replacing it with the newest (crazylight!) gear – but at a cost of around $431 per pound shaved. This means that, if you are a manufacturer of such gear, we want YOU to sponsor us! Here’s looking at you ZPacks and Englightend Equipment!

BIG credit card sign-up bonuses can get you around the world

There is no need to spend $100,000 – or anywhere even close – to earn 100,000 frequent flier miles with a miles credit card. The trick is to apply for credit cards with HUGE sign-up bonuses, and then use those cards to pay for *all* of your everyday expenses to meet the minimum spending requirements (usually around $3k in the first 3 months). A great place to find those offers is: https://cardsfortravel.com/

Choosing Travel Destinations for a Round-the-World Trip

If you were planning a round-the world (RTW) trip, how would you choose your destinations? For me, this is the most exciting part of planning for our upcoming one-year RTW travel adventure. But it can be a bit overwhelming – after all, you’ve got the whole world from which to choose.

Bucket List: It’s easiest, of course, to start with one’s bucket list, regardless of how difficult or expensive the places may be to reach. Currently at the top of my list are Madagascar, Tanzania, Peru, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, and Fiji – not exactly neighboring countries, but all doable on a round-the-world itinerary.

–>To connect the dots on your bucket list, you might try the easy-to-use flight tool at indie.bootsnall.com, which shows your path around the globe as you input your destinations, and then finds flights.

But what if you don’t have a bucket list? Or have only a very short one? Thinking about the following categories and criteria could help you identify contenders for your trip:

Worldwide vs regional focus: Is your goal to get a broad overview of the cultures and geographies of the world, or to explore a particular region in some depth? In our case, we plan to continent-hop from South America to Asia, Africa, and Australia to get a taste of those places so that we know where we might want to spend more time in the future.

–>To help gather ideas for our route, I’ve been using Google’s fun Explore Destinations tool, which shows a handy map of flight options and fares from any city you input.

Budget: If you have a limited budget, you could choose the places that allow you to live like royalty on what you’d normally spend in any given day back home. In Asia, these include places such as Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Vietnam, Nepal, and India; in South America, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru; and in Africa, Morocco and Egypt. Conversely, if you have a large budget, you could gather ideas in Afar, Global Living, or Elite Travel Magazine for the globe’s most luxurious destinations.

Interests: You could build an itinerary around your interests, such as food, nature, architecture, eco-tourism, beaches, and the like. In our case, seeing the places Elise’s late father spent his childhood as the son of a UN geologist is a key interest area. Another is animals, since Elise loves them so much she wants to be a veterinarian. So, I’m looking at Thailand’s elephant rescue center and countries with unusual animal life such as the Galapagos Islands, Komodo Island, and Australia. Also high on my list are places of insane natural beauty or charm and epic beaches and treks.

Best of Lists: Once you’ve identified your interests, you might try searching Best of lists to refine your choices, eg “Best Beaches in the World” or “Top 10 Hikes in the World”. I tend to look at the rankings from Lonely Planet, Trip Adviser, Rough Guides, National Geographic, and Conde Nast. When a destination appears on multiple lists – as do Matira Beach, Bora Bora and the Milford Track, New Zealand, for example – I earmark those places for closer review.

Seven Wonders: For the ultimate natural wonders, underwater wonders, ancient and modern monuments, and even cities and feats of engineering, you might take a look at the various Seven Wonders of the World lists. I’m considering places on the Natural Wonders list, such as Ha Long Bay, Komodo Island, Iguazu Falls and the Amazon Rainforest, as well as Monument Wonders, including Machu Picchu, Taj Mahal, and the Great Pyramids.

Holding Bin: You might also keep a separate list of places you’d love to visit, but which require monitoring due to safety concerns, logistics, weather, or expense. For us, as much as we would love to see Petra, Jordan is on this list, given ongoing unrest in the region, as is Fiji, because our window to visit may coincide with cyclone season.

As I went through this list, eight countries emerged as clear winners! Peru, Ecuador, Argentina, Madagascar, Tanzania, Thailand, Vietnam and New Zealand all ranked high on nature, animals, and insane natural beauty. Ecuador and Argentina are also two of the places where Elise’s dad spent his childhood, Peru has Machu Picchu, and NZ the Milford Track. Japan, Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Australia also meet many of our criteria. Now I just have to figure out when the weather is best (i.e. mid-high 70’s, no monsoons) in each of those places, as we want to follow the summer. More on this topic in a later post!

2017 tips for saving on flights

save $ on flights keyboard

According to a new report from Expedia , you’ll save a lot of money on flights by following these tips:

  • purchase tickets on a Sunday vs Friday to save as much as 11% on domestic US travel and 16% on travel to Europe
  • book 21 days in advance to save as much as 30% over waiting until the last minute
  • include a Saturday night overnight for savings of up to 57% (particularly in Southern Europe)

The study also ranked the top destinations for 2017 based on growth in the previous year: #1 was Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba (53%); Da Nang, Vietnam was a close second, followed by: Zhuhai, China (41%); Cusco, Peru (39%); and Santiago, Chile (38%). Cities in Uruguay, Iceland, Panama,  Russia, and Mexico City were other mentions.

Read more: http://www.budgettravel.com/feature/air-travel-booking-secrets-for-2017,69356/#ixzz4WJ5L2vqW