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There is an article in today’s travel section of the New York Times about street food in India. More specifically, the article deals with the migration of “street food” from the street to more restaurant-like establishments. I have not (yet) been lucky enough to see Mumbai, and although the piece is mostly about that city, I think street food is an universally Indian enough for me to comment.

Apparently, recently “a slew of restaurants are sanitizing street food, serving it in clean (if not always pristine) surroundings. At most places, you can eat like a king for less than $2.” First of all, $2 for Indian street food is a rip-off comparable to a McDonald’s competitor selling Big-Macs for $30. Second, part of what makes street food in India so great is the fact that is on the street.

There will always be those Mumbaikars who tell you that street snacks eaten in restaurants just can’t compare with the authentic fare of “Raju the blind chaatwala at the second open drain behind the Churchgate Railway Station.” They are probably right. There’s something about the down-and-dirtiness of real street fare that makes it all the tastier.

Typical Hot Indian Street (Varanasi)

Typical Hot Indian Street (Varanasi)

Like I said, I don’t know about Mumbai, but this is definitely true in other Indian cities, as well. The relatively uninformed traveler doesn’t know about Raju, and doesn’t know where his food stand is. So, in choosing where to eat, a slightly different process takes place. Stage 1: Walking down hot, crowded, smelly Indian street, impossibly trying to take everything in, and avoiding most vendors’ calls to buy their merchandise, not to mention being gored by a stray cow or run over by rickshaw driver. Stage 2: Surprisingly, amongst the heat, humdity and insects, hunger strikes. Stage 3: This depends on the level of familiarity with Indian street food (usually directly correlated with the amount of time spent in India). If familiar with Indian street food- decide on sweet fried food (Jalebi/Emarti/etc) or something only slightly more wholesome (Pakora/Samosa/etc). Stage 4: Pick best looking /smelling food cart. Stage 5: Enjoy.

The Only Way to Drink Chai

The Only Way to Drink Chai

It does take somewhat of a “brave tourist to sample the wares from a street vendor who is casually mashing potatoes with his bare and grubby hands, as flies buzz happily around.” That remains, however, the best way to eat your first Samosa, after escaping to a nearby alley when the “tourist bus” (I was the only non-local on the bus) to the Taj Mahal dropped us off at a way-too-expensive restaurant (kickbacks are rampant in the service industry in India).

In Amritsar - Not Street Food, but Still Great

In Amritsar - Not Street Food, but Still Great

The article “After all, what’s good enough for Anthony Bourdain …” Assuming that someone who travels with an expensive entourage, stays in fancy hotels, and eats at places suggested by Western-knowledgable locals is inherently more adventurous, is wrong. It might be a safer course of action – an upset stomach that starts in Varanasi, continued through the festival of Holi and a 24 rickshaw+train+jeep journey to Darjeeling and only ends after finally adhering to a strict, bland diet is well… an experience.

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Part 1, and part 2.

I realized I forgot to mention something to complete the description of the Lao bus riding experience. Lao music. When you’re in the moment, trying to experience a new culture, then almost any music is fine. However, on a very long bus ride, it is an entirely different story. Bus drivers in Laos insist on playing their awful pop music at very high volumes, for the entire duration of the trip. This goes on, regardless of what time it may be. If you dare to ask them to turn it down, so that you might actually be able to sleep, they will give you dirty looks, turn it down slightly, and five minutes later turn it back up. While many of the fancier buses (this was not one of those) have air conditioning, they are also equipped with TVs, both in the front and in the back, to play ridiculous karaoke videos, ensuring you never sleep.

Lao music might actually be very good music, but it will forever be ingrained in my memory as horrendous noise. Nowhere have I ever been more exhausted and had a harder time falling asleep. An Egged bus with arsim playing music on their cell phones while the driver yaps away with an old lady, in the heat, with no air conditioning, while I’m wearing a full uniform – that’s heaven compared to a bus in Laos. The attitude I always had, when stuck in such uncomfortable situations was that when it is all over, it will make for a good story.

Anyway, I had just run into S. at the most improbable time and place, and I couldn’t be happier. I was facing another 7 or so hours on the bus, going to a very unfamiliar city where I was supposed to meet him. Where or when exactly? I did not know. The next few hours actually went by pretty quickly, I was finally able to speak with someone, and catch up with all that happened over the past month and a half.

A few hours later, the bus stopped for lunch. We got out, walked around, and found a soup stand. S. and I asked the lady running the place what was in the soup. When sawe that she had a separate vegetable stock which she poured into bowls, and then added rice noodles and some mystery meat, so we ordered soup, but without the meat. Once we were convinced she understood our request, we waited a few minutes only to be served soup… with meat. So we repeated our request of no meat, and asked for new servings of soup. The lady took back our bowls and we saw her picking the meat out of the bowls, in order to serve the same soup back to us. When we told her that was not really acceptable, she started yelling at us in a language neither of us understood and chased us out of her soup stand. I think we ended up eating cookies and potato chips.

After getting back on the bus, and spending a few more hours in the horrible mountain roads (no rain, thankfully, or we would have been stuck somewhere for yet another night), we finally arrived at the Phongsali bus station. At the bus station everyone was taking pickup truck-taxis into town, so we loaded up our much-too-big backpacks onto one of these mini trucks and headed to town. Except that we didn’t really know where to get off, and since we were charged a flat rate for the ride, the driver kept trying to let us off at places that were clearly far away from the center.

The Main Street of Phongsali

The Main Street of Phongsali

Eventually, we found a hotel of sorts, checked in, and went out to see what goes on around in Phongsali. Not much. Most people we encountered only spoke Mandarin, and did not even understand the extremely minimal Lao we had learned. There were no other travelers in town as far as we could see, and even finding a restaurant was a difficult task. We found one restaurant, which was run by a mute Lao woman, and ate all of our meals there for the two and a half days we stayed there. The fact that she was unable to actually speak with us, made it easier for us to communicate, since she was already used to relying on hand motions, and did not expect us to be able to speak in a language she would understand.

There’s really not much in Phongsali at all, but at least we got to meet each other again while escaping the heat of the southern plains. Also, seeing a place that is not used to getting visitors at all, and is so far from civilization as we know it, is really an experience. Yes, people will stare at you more than usual, but it’s also nice that you aren’t confronted by touts every step of the way. Who knows, maybe in ten years a reliable road will be built to northern Laos, and Phongsali will turn into just another backpackers’ haven?

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Part 1 here.

Last I wrote I was having dinner, of sorts, at a random rest-stop in the middle of rural southeast Asia. It was started to rain, which tends to happen during the monsoon season, but I started to worry. Like I said, the Lao drivers aren’t exactly-confidence inspiring in the best of conditions, let alone dark and rainy nights. I wasn’t exactly looking forward to that weather, especially with at least another 12 hours on the bus. Anyway, it was getting a bit late, and I had a double seat, so even though the buses in Laos are designed for, well, Lao people (who tend to be quite a bit shorter than I am), I was still able to get some sleep.

Next thing I know it’s 2:00 am and the only person on the bus who is able to put together (semi) complete sentences in English is relaying a message from the driver: because of the rain and the mud the road is impassable, so we would have to spend the night at the bus station in a small village whose name I cannot remember. Bear in mind that the term bus station means something else entirely in northern Laos. The bus station in that little village was not exactly the kind of place in which I could wander around and find an air-conditioned corner in which to fall asleep. It consisted of a large concrete slab, about 30X70 feet, about a quarter of which was partially covered by a large piece of plastic. At that end there was also a small ticket booth. That’s about it. My home for the night.

Somehow it was conveyed to me that there was some sort of guesthouse in the area where I could spend the night. I politely declined. Part of the reason I tried to travel between places at night was because I could save a few bucks by sleeping on the road and not in a guesthouse. I didn’t want to lose a day because of the weather, and pay more for that trip than I had originally planned. Furthermore, the thought of missing the bus and being stranded in the middle of nowhere for yet another day definitely worried me. So my interpreter, being the nice guy that he was, brought a sack of rice from the back of the bus to prop my feet up, and left me to sleep until morning.

I managed to sleep through the night, and next thing I know it’s 8 am and I can’t wait to get out of there already. Oh no, that would make too much sense. The bus driver and his buddies are sitting around, smoking cigarettes and chatting away. Kind of like bus drivers in Israel. And they get just as annoyed, too, when you ask them when the bus is supposed to leave, too. I think he said 9:30.

The View Along the Highway

The View Along the Highway

Since I have to kill time, I walk around, to see where I am, and I discover that the offer of a guesthouse the previous night was actually a free offer, respecting the rich (ha!) white guy. Oh well, I’ve slept in worse places. Eventually, I find a bathroom. And by bathroom I mean a shack of sorts with only a whole in the ground for a “toilet.” Literally. But this was Asia, so that was actually pretty normal. At least I didn’t have to pay to go – they like charging you for visiting their holes in the ground at bus stations in Laos.

I was pissed off that yet another day went down the drain, because if we were supposed to arrive in Phongsali at around 8 am, we were already 6 hours behind, which in Lao terms really meant more like 8 hours. After walking around and waiting for an hour and a half I got back on the bus when the driver told me we might leave (knowing full well I would have to wait for another 15 minutes, at least – but I think it’s always better to be safe than sorry in the third world).

Anyway , while sitting on the bus, I suddenly heard someone call my name. Now, I was the only white person on the bus, and I didn’t really anticipate meeting anyone with whom I could converse, let alone someone I knew, for at least another 7 or 8 hours. In a stroke of divine luck, S., the friend I was supposed to meet, was at the same bus stop as I, at the same time, heading in the same direction.

Last I had seen S., we were both in Kathmandu, Nepal heading in different directions, and I couldn’t be happier to see him at that moment. Apart from making an 8 hour bus ride go by faster, if I hadn’t met him then and there, I’m not sure we would have actually met in Phongsali, despite the fact that we were both going to be there at the same time.

NEXT: What happens in Phongsali… well, no one really cares about what happens in Phongsali.

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As some of you may know, I spent some time over the past year in various places around Asia. One of the things I realized was how much we, in the developed world, take the quality of our roads for granted. I’ve spent entire days and entire nights on buses, and on other vehicles the locals think are buses, going at the breakneck speed of about 40 kmh (25 mph). It’s not that the these drivers were especially cautious, quite the contrary. Take a bus ride in India, and you will suddenly have a much more positive view of Israeli driving. The roads are just that bad. In many places you couldn’t see the road for the potholes. Literally.

Of all the places I’ve been around the world, the country with the absolute worst infrastructure was Laos. (For the somewhat geographically challenged among you, Laos is a landlocked country in southeast Asia, just north of Thailand and west of Vietnam). Don’t get me wrong, I had a great time in Laos, I really loved it. The city of Luang Prabang is one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever had the pleasure of visiting. The city is located at the confluence of two rivers, the famous Mekong and its lesser known tributary, the Nam Khan. The city looks like what you would expect, considering its an Asian city heavily influenced by the French. Oh, and they have great coffee. For the coffee drinking vagabonds among you, keep in mind that Asians don’t drink much real coffee. We spent days on end in Nepal in search of “black coffee”, only to be presented time and time again with Nestlé’s contribution to globalization – Nescafé. That, however, is part of another story.

I was going from Luang Prabang to Phongsali, and as you can guess, I was moving much slower than 40 kmh.  I spent about 24 hours on a bus in order to traverse a distance of about just over 200 km (about 130 miles). For the sake of comparison, that is more or less the same as the distance between Philaedlphia and Washington, DC. In Israel – the distance between Be’er Sheva and Eilat is 241 km (150 miles). Not exactly a distance one thinks will take that much more than three hours.

Anyway, Luang Prabang was nice, but I was going to meet a friend of mine in Phongsali, in Laos’s far north. Phongsali is so close to the Chinese-Lao border that many of the town’s inhabitants don’t even speak Lao, they only speak Mandarin.

I didn’t know exactly when (communication in that part of the world is also pretty sparse), but my friend was supposed to be in Phongsali sometime during that week, so I decided to take a chance and just go. In fact, I bought my bus ticket only about an hour before the bus was supposed to leave. I hadn’t packed yet, and the bus station (assuming I get a tuk-tuk driver who actually goes to the right station) was about 30 minutes away. So I rushed back to my overpaid guesthouse room ($10 a night is really too much in that part of the world), stuffed my life at the time in my oversized backpack, hailed a tuk-tuk and was on my way.

Like I said, outside of the third world this is not such a daunting prospect, but this was Laos, not Highway 6. I finally left Luang Prabang at about 13:30 (the bus was scheduled to leave 30 minutes earlier, so we were more or less on time). Of course, I was the only Westerner on the bus, which made for an interesting ride. Most other passengers attempted to make use of their extremely limited English. I was repeated asked things like “You from?” and “You Phongsali?”, and when hearing that was indeed where I was headed, most were both throroughly impressed and surprised that a lone Westerner would dare or even want to make the trip up there (most of the passengers did not go nearly that far, and got off at villages along the way). After a few hours, we stopped for dinner at a rest-stop of the drivers choosing (kickbacks are big in southeast Asia):

During the break, I discovered there was one person on the bus who did speak a little conversational English, an enthusiastic college student who obviously studies in a college where English is not considered a high priority. We didn’t have any deep discussions but, at the very least, though, he could ask the “restaurant” owner at the rest-stop to describe the ingredients in the various interesting dishes she was serving. I ended up eating potato chips (no, not the seafood flavored variety) and a few chocolate bars.

NEXT: I find out that bus rides are not a nightly activity in some parts of Laos, get a welcome surprise, and encounter the wild north.

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I understand the appeal of drugs. I also understand the appeal of money. However, when those two are combined with stupidity, it results, more often that not, in bad decisions.

A 22-year old Israeli, like many others his age, traveled throughout India and had a great time. During his trip he encountered the wonder that is Himalayan-grown hash, and probably enjoyed it a great deal. He decided he didn’t want the fun to end and that he could probably also make a quick buck by introducing Israelis who have not been to India to that same wonder.

This guy came up with an idea (sorry, couldn’t find an English version), which I’m sure he thought was brilliant and fool-proof. Why not swallow dozens of grams of hash before the flight home? Surely, he would outsmart the Israeli authorities at the airport. His luck ran out, however, and shortly after landing, he was arrested and had an x-ray taken of his stomach. He was then placed in a bathroom stall while detectives of the Tel Aviv District waited for him to “do his business.” His arraignment is scheduled for tomorrow.

India really is a wonderful place, and in India, like in many other third-world countries, many bend and break the law with few consequences (not that I advocate doing so). When approaching the end of such a long trip in India, many travelers are not very eager to leave, and want to prolong the “India experience” as much as possible. Too often, this gives some people a distorted view of reality, and so they attempt something stupid, and end up being taught a lesson the hard way. Why do so many keep doing this? Can they really not foresee the outcome?

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Sticking it to the TSA

The TSA is supposedly keeping America and its airports safe since 9/11. I don’t feel particularly safe in American airports. Whether or not they are doing a good job, there is a better way to secure the airports. Anyone who has visited Israel knows that you don’t need to take your shoes off, put your bottled water into three containers in a single ziplock bag, or to be a total ass, to keep an airport secure.

Having faced off with the unbelievably stupid people who work for the TSA, I would want to piss them off, too. These high-school dropouts and criminals are such idiots should never be allowed to wield so much power.

With these metal plates sending messages to every TSA “X-Ray technician”, Evan Roth has come up with a clever way to get back at them. It might end up being a little dangerous, considering the amount of power these idiots have, which seems inversely proportional to their level of intelligence. In the mean time, however, I hope he pisses off as many TSA employees as possible. Maybe someone will realize that if my belt buckle sets off the metal detector twice that doesn’t give you the right man handle me in public, nor does give anyone the right perform a “virtual strip search” on me.

Enjoy.

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The average Israeli is far from perfect. The average Israeli tourist is even further away from perfect.

For years, Israelis traveling the world have not exactly given Israeli a good name. There are stories of theft from hotel rooms in Turkey – bathrobes and even the odd sink. There are stories of Israelis in third world countries yelling and cursing, bargaining over the equivalent of a couple of cents, simply in order to be able to tell their friends they were able to get the best price. I could go on and on, but the point is pretty clear – Israelis don’t have the greatest reputation abroad, and haven’t exactly done too much to improve that. This is not to say all Israeli tourists act horribly, or that even most do. Enough do, though, to create a deserved stereotype.

They say change starts at home, and Ynet reported today on what is definitely a good thing, but hopefully will spread and create a positive stereotype. Israelis love to travel, and since the Jewish calendar is Israel’s official calendar, Israelis are provided with numerous opportunities to travel around the country (in addition to the ironic habit many have to go to Sinai every Passover). According to Ynet (Hebrew), 800,000 Israelis decided to take advantage of this two day vacation by traveling around the country – hiking and visiting national parks and the JNF, the body responsible for Israeli national parks, noted a significant improvement in people cleaning up after themselves and picking up trash.

Let’s hope these acts are indicative of an overall positive trend, that Israeli will be more responsible tourists. Enough people hate us around the world already, we don’t need to give them any additional reasons.

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