Oct 19, 2008

Lori x2

I feel incredibly lucky to have just spent two weeks with my friend Lori for a second time this year (no, the cute kid is not Lori, but a charming Antigua lad). In the spring it was SE Asia - this time she came to explore Mayan ruins, lakes, villages, churches, cemeteries, markets, chicken bus rides and colonial towns of Guatemala.

Being lazy, I'm linking you to Lori's blog to read about our adventures. She's summed up our travels in several posts better than I could!

Photos to come...

I'm now planning to base myself in Antigua, Guatemala for the next 3-4 weeks to do some volunteer work with cute kiddos. The vibrant culture and lovely setting amongst volcanoes is perfect way to spend the majority of my remaining time on the road. I'll head back to LA from Nicaragua on Nov 24 to give thanks with my family there, then visit friends and family in No and So Cal for the month of Dec. Hard to believe I'm on my last leg! It's been quite a ride.

Oh, and try not to touch public walls - you never know what those walls have seen and felt... (see Lori's blog) And don't forget to pack heat when you come to Guatemala - you'll fit right in. It seems everyone, including Pepsi or meat delivery trucks, has armed guards with shotguns.

Sep 9, 2008

People listening

i've discovered a new pastime, not people watching but people listening. not eavesdropping, mind you, but sitting on a balcony listening to the sounds of a small town come alive in the morning, or go to sleep in the evening - or not go to sleep as the case may be. sounds of life. i guess i've been doing this along the way - sounds of muslim prayer call, sounds of the ocean roaring, sounds of tibetan buddhist prayer wheels spinning or markets bustling, but i once again had a revelation of how eye (or ear) opening it is to just sit, and listen, in stillness. sometimes i'm so focused on the visuals and making photographs that i perhaps forget to hear on top of see.

this particular rural town is called Teotitlan, in the Oaxaca Valley, Mexico known for its weaving - literally every household has at least one loom (yes, I've switched continents since my last blog entry). a brief and likely incomplete list of the town rumblings: roosters (of course), packs of dogs barking, donkeys, sheep, children's chatter, church bells ringing, public service announcements over a loud speaker delivered around town via a pickup truck, marching bands and fireworks (both of the latter literally at all hours of the day).

speaking of fireworks, adrienne and I happened upon an nighttime saint's day celebration outside a church in the city of Oaxaca. Adrienne spontaneously bought a plane ticket to join me in oaxaca for 2 1/2 weeks 5 days before departure - i adore spontaneity! Anyhow, we joined the crowd close to the action, the action being men taking turns putting a roughly built wooden donkey over their heads like a giant mask and dancing around. the kicker is that the donkey was adorned with fireworks, spinning an crackling - on their heads! they would swoop in close to the crowd and we'd all instinctively lean back, hoping the sparks wouldn't land on us. wild. i'm greatly looking forward to what daredevil acts will occur on Sept 15 - independence day.

i can't write about oaxaca without mentioning the mole and chocolate (tortillas, mango, avocado tambien). oaxacans drink bowls of hot chocolate & dip bread for breakfast. you have to experience both yourself, that's all i can say. oh, and the markets - crazy. oh, and the catholics here are some of the most devout I've witnessed.

we're now at the beach in Puerto Escondido, a surfer's haven. while neither of us surf, we certainly enjoy watching and falling asleep to the sounds of the waves breaking.

Aug 12, 2008

Winds of Croatia

I can't tell you what a feeling it was to see Ali walk out of the Zagreb hotel as I was approaching it. For months I had been looking forward to seeing my friend of 20 years. We laughed, we cried, it was better than Cats. Our week in Croatia went by way too fast, as all travel seems to do, but I relished every minute of it. We spent most of the week in the seaside resort town of Bol on an island called Brac in the Adriatic Sea off of Split, the largest city on the Dalmatian coast. The island is known for its cheese, wine and olive oil - needless to say we ate and drank well.

We chose Bol for its lovely 'golden horn' pebble beach surrounded by pine trees, but sadly the first few days offered non-fortuitous rain and clouds. We still walked the promenade and the beach with our umbrellas - mine was turned inside out with the gale force winds. Because of these unique and strong winds, Bol is popular for wind-surfing, kitesurfing and other windy sports. While we didn't partake, it was amazing to watch the kitesurfers fly into the air 30 feet above the water. Floating in the extremely salty turquoise water was more my style, that is, once the sun came out. Which it did, and it was glorious.

Ali and I took a daytrip from our island back to Split (usually people do that the other way around), but we wanted to maximize our island time. Split has a couple thousand years of interesting history, with the Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Hungarians, Austrians & Slavs all ruling the city at their given times. The Romans built a large palace back in AD 300, as the Romans do, and today the palace walls house the old city where you can walk the narrow alleys and buy trinkets.

It was a trip to board a plane in Split for a short flight to Zurich, then fly direct to Miami. Miami! Back on US soil after 7 months. I think Miami was a smart choice for a pitstop in the states before heading to Mexico & Central America, not only because my grandma Libby, aunt Kathy and friend Jeanette live here (as wells as having many out of town visitors). My culture shock has been lessened by a city of bilingual signs, Spanish speakers and gorging myself on Cuban food.

Jul 31, 2008

Roadtrippin the Balkans

Istanbul to Bulgaria, Macedonia, Albania, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia overland in 5 weeks. Yep, Susan and I were on a mission, back to moving a bit too quickly to cover lots of ground, but what are ya gonna do. Including many scorching hot buses and trains, I feel I've picked up a taste of the people and cultures in these countries, each with a vast history of which I knew little.  Here are some mini profiles of gracious people I met and our brief interludes:

Konstantin, a 19-year old over-achieving smartie I met on a train. Loves taking 10+ day backpacking trips into the wilderness, extreme snowboarding and is passionate about 4x4 off-roading of the souped-up Suzuki sort.  He and his dad organize competitions, photograph and video them for magazines while competing too. He showed me some clips of his soon to be released DVD documenting the latest competition in Greece and the sport looks like a lot of rough & tumble fun. When not producing DVDs, he's studying at a college for the elite brains of Bulgaria, wherein only 8 or 9 of the 30 kids accepted in his department actually graduate each year. He's not your average 19-year Bulgarian old for sure. His dad, mom and sister are all professional photographers and are rarely in the same place at once, each traveling to different places for different jobs. When I probed about change since Bulgaria became part of the EU, Konstantin said that joining the EU has actually put Bulgarians in a more desperate position financially. Prices have shot up with the Euro, but salaries haven't. This seemed to be a recurring theme as I traveled through other recently joined EU countries. 

A humble day of gifts from strangers. Strolling the farmers market in Ohrid, i asked to take a photo of 3 folks chatting behind their counter selling dry beans. They smiled with a sure! and asked me to sit down with them. After kindly refusing to try their rakiya (home-brewed liquor) since it was 10am, I accepted their offer to buy me a coffee and we talked for some time about life and the states.  That afternoon as I was walking along a beach on the lake a man waved me over to where he, his son and friend were putting their tiny motorboat in the water. While their English was limited, I finally understood that they were insisting I come out on the lake with them in the boat. I was delighted. Sadly after 20 minutes of unsuccessfully trying to start the motor, I thanked them and decided not to wait as I didn't trust the motor to last even if they could start it. Sure enough, an hour later I saw them out on the lake paddling back and we waved at each other laughing.  At sunset I was drinking a beer at an outdoor cafe on the lake. The only other people there were a group of early 20-something friends having a good ole time. After I finished my beer, the waitress came over with another and said it was from the kids who I hadn't even been hanging out with. They could tell I wasn't a local and wanted to show me the Macedonian hospitality. I certainly found out all about it that day!

Susan and I were waiting at a cafe for a bus to take us across the border into Montenegro. A woman sitting at the table next to us (in photo on the left) asked where we are from and was thrilled when we responded the states since she is an Albanian living in NY.  In Albania she owns an evening gown boutique with imported gowns from a NY designer. In NY she owns a bridal gown shop. She asked if we needed any help, then decided she was going to drive us across the border to our destination down Ulcinj about 45 min away (not counting waiting at the border). She called up her brother-in-law and shortly thereafter he and his daughter showed up. She paid for our drinks, stopped to buy us water bottles, treated us to lunch once we arrived and helped us find a room. Says she loves Americans and loves to help people in general. We were greatly touched by her generosity to us strangers. In talking about how people are in essence the same around the world, she commented that people with little money have big open hearts and people with too much money have closed hearts. While a generalization, I have met so many people during these travels who have so very little but are willing to give that little away. It's their culture and that's the way you treat people, of course. It's so simple and natural. This woman not only has a big heart but a huge smile and joyous energy too.  The US concepts of individual success and constant drive for achievement leading to payday certainly aren't the ways of the world wherein family and community and helping each other comes first. I have a lot to learn. 

Boris (on left) lives in the capital but was visiting Kotor with friends for the day. I approached him & his friends at a cafe to ask if they were staying in town as Susan and I had struck out a few times on private rooms that weren't to our liking. Turns out his family owns a guesthouse on the water 10km outside the old walled city. He wasn't sure if we'd like the rooms, so he offered to drive us there to check it out. We ended up staying for a couple nights in a 3rd floor room with a stellar view, only leaving because it was 100 degrees in our room at night and there was no running water in that part of town the whole time we were there. Boris had come back the 2nd night and offered the next day to drive us back to the old town, help us find a room and show us around town for the day. He drove us to a lovely beach that we never would have known about and we talked for hours. He's an artist, but working as a graphic designer in the news industry. Really cool sweetheart who could have just said,' sorry - we aren't staying in town' when i asked, but instead went way out of his way to help out and show us a great time. 

Kuldija - philosopher, caregiver, husband, father, former Bosnian special forces who fought the Serbs in Sarajevo, same age as me. Stayed up til 3am talking about life under a starry sky in a Sarajevo square. I had lots of questions about the war and his time fighting when Sarajevo was under siege by the powerful Serb army surrounding all sides of a city that lies in a small valley. 15 years ago he was a fearless warrior, now he seems like he couldn't hurt a fly. It's hard for me to even comprehend his stories: crossing far into enemy territory in the middle of a foggy night to plant landmines; a successful 5-month hunt for a Serb sniper who only killed women and children - he stared down the sniper in the eyes moments before shooting him; having 7 seconds to escape after being a one-man attack on tanks 20 meters away with a handheld weapon; walking into a minefield barely escaping death once he saw his foot start to pull up a line - making his way out by slowly crawling in the snow feeling ahead with his knife. It took him 1 1/2 years to be able to sleep through the night. He threw away his numerous medals of honor. When he looks at a photo of himself from that time, he doesn't know who that person is, but he feels he has beaten that beast out of him. His wife and 7 year old daughter live in Dublin, but he has returned to Sarajevo  for 18 months so far to care for his mother dying of cancer, because that is what you do in most cultures - take care of your parents. Discussing eastern philosophy, he explained he feels a deep affinity for Native American healers, Tibetan Buddhist monks and Amazonian shamans. His dream is to visit with these three sometime in his life. He has written a book of over 1000 short philosophical insights based on his experiences in the war and hopes to publish it someday. I don't understand war. 

Jul 29, 2008

and then there was one

Seems I've forgotten that usually people write on a blog, not just post photos. Well, I've got a log of catching up to do. Varanasi seems ages ago. Certainly many miles away. So you'll have to excuse stories no longer flowing in chronological order. but time doesn't really matter... 

As I write (of course then it took me a couple weeks to post) I'm on a train to Salzburg after a month touring the Balkans with Susan. Sadly, very sadly, Ariella left us back in Turkey because she had places to go and people to see in France & England (and has recently returned home to Seattle - she's the bravest of us for facing re-entry first!).  Susan and I felt like a limb was missing, and certainly an emotional one was. Now I've lost another limb as Susan and I parted ways in Sarajevo mid-July. She's off to Copenhagen and I'm returning to Austria to visit my old hood. I studied photography in Salzburg back in '95 for a semester and haven't been back since.  So our summer chasing together is officially over - I couldn't have dreamed of two more amazing travel buddies. We have learned from and grown with each other in ways I think I'll continue to realize as time passes. Ladies - I'll be looking for you around corners as I continue my journey and while I likely won't see you, you'll be with me in spirit. 

Jun 12, 2008

Varanasi trekking

Imagine a labyrinth of narrow Venetianesque alleyways (galis) that would be impossible to navigate if it weren’t for arrowed signs painted on the cracking corner building walls leading you this way and that way to the popular guesthouses and German bakeries. For some reason in India and Nepal the locals got the idea that all bakeries should be deemed a “German” bakery. Alternatively, men offer to lead you to your destination with the hope that you’ll then check out their shop. The usual line is “I saw you yesterday. Remember me? You come look at my shop now.” Ariella and I chose a guesthouse that happened to be next door to the “burning ghat.” The ghats are the steps leading up from the Ganges that you see in all the classic images of people bathing, doing laundry and giving morning "puja" to the sun god in the river. The burning ghat is the holy holy ghat where Hindus come to cremate their relatives who have made a pilgrimage to Varanasi to die. The bodies are ceremoniously carried on stretchers down to the ghat, bodies covered by a sheet with colorful gold and red decorations. The bodies are cleansed in the river and burned under a pile of wood (the type of wood and size of the pile depends on how much a family can afford). The cremations go 5-6 at a time, 24/7. Relatives get their heads shaved in respect for the dead so there are lots of barbers sitting around to do the job. No photographs allowed. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. It was quite a sight to walk by every time we came and went from our hotel (and quite a smell).

Speaking of smells, the crowded alleyways are covered with trash and feces (often of unknown origin – cow, dog, cat, human?) and the stench of urine is hard to escape. But in addition to this, they are full of life. Compared to privacy-seeking westerners, street life abounds – food and chai stalls, buying/selling of every sort, worship, cows, beggars & hawkers, casual conversations and so much more. I don’t observe there to be such thing as personal space in India. Understandably so, with over a billion people living in a land mass 1/3 the size of the US.

We didn’t realize upon leaving the Nepal Himalayas that we’d be back to trekking in Varanasi, but we got quite a workout going up and down and up stairs. Let me remind you that May is the hottest year of the month in a country that gets hot hot hot. We knew this going into it, but sure enough it was too hot to be outside doing much of anything between the hours of 9am and 7pm. So after early morning boat rides or just walking the ghats to watch the morning activities & rituals, we’d find a café with at least a fan or an internet café or splurge on a day at a hotel pool.

Varanasi is quintessential India, unlike anything I’d seen on my last journey to this amazing country. Like a sign I saw, the "Ganga (Ganges) is the life line of Indian culture" - I take this to be spiritual, symbolic and geographic life line - and you can feel it. Just don’t go in May. But do go, do go.

Jun 3, 2008

India in not so many words

Pictures speak more than a thousand words. While I haven't written yet about my 5 weeks in India, I've now posted nearly all of my slideshows. After Varanasi and Jantar Mantar I've added:
* Agra - a visit to the Agra Fort and Taj Mahal in some serious hot weather
* Delhi - Red Fort, Old Delhi and New Delhi (including the neighborhood where we stayed called Paharganj, which we fondly (or not so fondly) referred to as Pahar Grunge)
* McLeod Ganj - home of His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his government-in-exile, as well as lots of soul-searching hippies and volunteers working with Tibetan refugees
* Pahalgam - a moutain resort town (primarily Indian tourists) in Kashmir - the landscape looks like Alaska, the gypsies look like Afghanistanis

I arrived in the 70 degree Istanbul today (ahhhhhh, so refreshing) and so begins Phase Four of my journey...
Phase One - Fiji/New Zealand/Australia
Phase Two - "Asia light" (Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos)
Phase Three - the subcontinent of Nepal & India
Phase Four - Turkey/Eastern Europe (I think. Plans could always change.)

I hope summer is treating you well!

May 20, 2008

Photos galore

Just wanted to give a head's up that I've added hours of viewing pleasure with more Nepal & India photographs. Okay, maybe not hours (i don't want to scare you away), but I tried to break them up into smaller albums from the different locations within Nepal and now India. The new albums include:
  • Sarangkot (mountain village above Pokhara with stunning views of the Anapurna range and the most gentle people)
  • Maoists & Election Day (a variety of flags, marches & signs around the country in addition to images from election day in Pokhara - so peaceful after all the hub bub!)
  • Pokhara (beautiful hippie lake town where we stayed in & around for over 3 weeks)
  • Bandipur (no-vehicle mountain village situated above the morning clouds)
  • Trisuli River (Susan and I went on 2-day river rafting/camping adventure - our campsite was next to a quaint village. I can't believe folks drive motorcycles across walking bridges like that... well, i can believe it)
  • Chitwan & Lumbini (I spent a few days relaxing and reading "Reading Lolita in Tehran" next to the river in the jungle area of Chitwan, watching tourists sit/stand on elephants & get thrown off into the river. I met Ariella in Lumbini after her 10 day Vipassana silent meditation retreat - what an accomplishment! You couldn't get me to painfully sit in meditation for 10 hours a day for 10 days straight... Check out her intense yet amazing experience on her blog [link is above slideshows on right])
  • Varanasi (okay, so I had trouble editing down images from the sacred Ganges (or Ganga), and believe me, this selection is edited! I highly recommend visiting anytime other than May when the temps reach 110... or I guess monsoon wouldn't be too fun bc the life of the river is on the steps (ghats) which are then underwater. but do visit - it's a place like none other)
  • Jantar Mantar, New Delhi (this series of structures for reading the skies & various other astronomical uses was built by a ruler in the 1500s. i think it's a cool playground for adults and kids alike!)
So grab a cup of chai or two and have a gander. Enjoy!

Apr 18, 2008

A Maoist new year

Back in Kathmandu, back to pollution and hectic activity in the streets. After nearly a month in Nepal, I can definitely say my favorite parts of the country are in the mountains - the quaint villages with welcoming souls and without pollution.

We spent about 3 weeks in the Pokhara area - the town itself and mountain surrounds. Every traveler I've met who has been there says the same thing - Pokhara sucks you in and it's really hard to leave. I kept saying, "tomorrow I'll leave," and then the next day i'd say the same thing. I'm still not sure what it is about the place, perhaps the laid back atmosphere, lake, mountain views, nearby treks (Anapurna region and others), and of course the local people, some of whom we'd hang out with everyday. We stayed longer to wait out the election as well, then had to stay to celebrate New Year's. Happy 2065! (different calendar in Nepal...) No space age stuff here in Nepal yet though.

After Panchassee (see last blog entry), my 2nd favorite place in Nepal is a town/village called Bandipur. It's in between Kathmandu and Pokhara, perched up on a ridge with 360 views of rice-terraced valleys below. The town was on the old trade route between India & Tibet and they have recently been restoring the main drag which has Newari-style architecture. Think Nepali row houses with doors you have to duck under (well, if you' above avg Nepali height that is). I've hit my head a number of times in this country. There are no vehicles in the town and by 8pm nearly everything is closed, especially if the power is out. I'd say there were no more than 30 tourists there at a time during my 5 days, and for some reason most people only pass through staying one nite - they seemed to be on packaged trekking tours.

While I tried for early morning mountain views the first 2 mornings, instead I was treated to a "white lake" view - complete cloud coverage over the valley below, with some nearby hills peaking out to say good morning. It was like being in a plane above the clouds, but outside - not looking over the wing through a tiny window. stunning. There's not a lot to do in Bandipur but wander the paths, chat with people, watch folks bathe & fill water containers at the natural spring water spouts, and take in the scenery. Somehow I kept getting pulled into random experiences as I kept trying to venture out of the main part of town. One day I head guitar playing & singing and asked a little girl about it. She took me upstairs in the home to a Christian prayer meeting. I was quite surprised when I realized they were singing Hallelujah and had bibles in hand, given the majority of the country are Hindu or Buddhist, or a combination of the two. They even had an English/Nepali bible for me to follow along. The singing was lovely and the loud praying (everyone speaking at the same time) interesting to observe. As with most visits in Nepal, the meeting ended with tea.

The next day I was drawn to singing outside a temple, and a woman who was walking outside invited me in. It was a small prayer session for a Krishna temple. This group was mostly women over 60, with a couple kids and one man who read the prayers. Mostly they sang and one person would dance in the middle of the circle. Of course they quickly motioned for me to dance, so I had to oblige. I had no clue of the dance style, so I did some twirling & hand motions similar to those that the women were doing while sitting. My new favorite phrase is "what to do?" You just gotta go with the flow.

Later that day I started chatting with a 12 year old girl named Pragya (well, she started chatting with me with the usual "where are you from" "what is your name" "how long in nepal"). She invited me inside to see her currency collection, so I said sure. First we talked as she finished her daily work of wiping down the dirt floor with water. Then we went upstairs to her "international bedroom". She clearly engages with a lot of travelers, as she had little mementos from all over the world. Mom brought tea and Pragya took over my camera to photograph her home and us. She insisted I come back later that evening bc she wanted to "make me pretty". Sure enough when I returned she spent an hour & half doing up my hair in a variety of styles and painting my face with make up. The orange lipstick stung my lips (likely very old), and the homemade heavy black eyeliner was a bit smudgy. but what fun!

The next day, the owner of my guesthouse took me along with him to the equivalent of the rehearsal dinner for his niece's wedding. I felt honored to be there, but I think the bride was a bit skeptical of my presence. Her family was taking pictures of me as the oddball guest. As the tradition, upon entry to the tent I washed my hands, gave her tikka (the red pigment placed on the forehead), placed a flower petal on her head, said my wishes for a happy marriage and long life, and gave her a gift of 100 rupees. (luckily i had been instructed beforehand...)

I didn't really want to leave Bandipur, but alas, I came back to Kathmandu to check out some sites I missed the first time around. Over the next week I'll work my way down to Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha, to meet up with Ariella and Susan before heading to India.

If you haven't been following the post-elections in Nepal, the Maoists have a decent lead in the coalition assembly and will be the ruling party. Due to delayed voting in some places bc of unrest on election day and recounts, the final results are not in, but the Maoists have given the king 28 days to vacate his palace (which they plan to turn into a museum). Overall the elections went very smoothly and peacefully. My bus from Pokhara to Bandipur was stopped for a while as I watched a Maoists parade process down the highway, with a local winning candidate perched atop a car as the highlight of the celebration. Everyone was covered in red pigment - all over their faces - to mark the celebration. Fascinating.

So as the country brought in the new year 2065, the Maoists indeed have a lot to celebrate.

As luck would have it, my friend Campbell from Wharton (who also just quit his job and is traveling for a year) arrived in Kathmandu yesterday. So great to see a familiar face, in Kathmandu!

p.s. did I mention how exhilarating riding atop buses/jeeps is? yes, i held on tight. much better than being squished inside in very uncomfortable positions...

Apr 9, 2008

Never Ending Peace And Love

According to a menu in a small mountain town, NEPAL = Never Ending Peace And Love. I believe it, despite the political unrest that has been building up to the very major election here on April 10. Since we arrived on Mar 23 the election has been the talk of the country, as well as the headlines on all the newspapers. Maoists and some other small parties have been the culprits of most of the violence. Sadly politicians have been murdered and kidnapped. Gun shoot-offs, cadres beating up cadres of other parties, knife fights and more. However, as a traveler, I've only been privy to the peaceful Maoist rallies - motorcycle gangs driving through town waving communist flags, trucks with loudspeakers praising the working man's party doctrines encouraging voters. I must admit, it is pretty trippy to be somewhere that is about to experience a major political shift depending on tomorrow's outcome. If the Maoists do win, then the country will become communist. If not, the newly established democracy will endure. Either way, the constitution will be re-written by the new constitutional assembly. Formerly ruled by a king whose brother murdered the entire royal family in order to become king about 5 years ago, this is a very historic event. Everything is supposed to be closed on election day, but i've learned that the tourist area where i'm currently hunkered down in Pokhara (5 hours west of Kathmandu) will be open for service. Tourism is the #1 industry in Nepal.

Back to peace and love, the people in Nepal are stunningly beautiful inside and out. The women are gorgeous, the men are hot. I hate to make generalizations, but it's true. and the kids! the spirit, the laughs, the playfulness, the smiles. We have made some incredible little friends who speak English better than many adults and just want to hang out and have photos taken of them without asking for money or sweets or pens (they like the pens here). "One photo, one photo" is the common cry as we walk by, especially in the mountain villages. Of course we always comply and love their giddiness as the run to look at the photo on our cameras.

I met a Hungarian named Viktor in Kathmandu - i was drawn to his large self-made pinhole camera he carried down the crazy streets. After a second spotting at a Tibetan Buddhist stupa (temple), I sat down to ask him about his camera. As luck would have it, I ran into him several days later in Pokhara. He had highly recommended I trek to a small mountain village in Panchassee and he happened to be leaving for the place the next day. Susan had sadly sprained her ankle and Ariella was looking into a yoga retreat in Pokhara, so I asked Viktor if I could tag along with him. His answering Yes made for a truly blessed next five days.

I was hesitant to trek because of my back issues. I hadn't done any serious hiking in a year - in fact it was a year to the day since I was in the emergency room after injuring my back again. Months of physical therapy and the past three months carrying my bags on the road had increased my strength, but I wasn't sure how I'd feel after trekking. Four hours uphill later, I was in awe of the ridge-top location looking across valleys down both sides of the mountain and didn't even think about my back. While I was sore the next day, I was thrilled that I made it step by step, even carrying my own backpack. Panchassee means Five Seats. The seats are the five mountain peaks that comprise this very sacred area. A revered yogi had come here to be enlightened/die and others have followed his lead. The peaks, caves, lakes and other natural beauties are believed to exude spiritual energy. Sunrise looking out at the Himalayas enhanced the peaceful bliss for me.

The guesthouse where we stayed for 5 nights is called the Happy Heart Hotel and is run by three incredibly special women. All single, no kids, never married. When asked if they like it that way they responded, "No husband. No children. Free." I guess I fall into the same boat. As Viktor had said, you can taste their happy hearts in the dal baht and other meals they cooked for us. Viktor had stayed with them previously for 3 weeks (with his anthropologist friend who lived there for 8 months) and so we were considered family. Instead of sitting in the dining room with the few other trekkers that would show up for a night, we spent most of our time sitting in the small kitchen where they cook over a fire. Much of my time was spent listening during the 5 days, whether it was to guides and the didis ("sisters" - which you call women like "aunty") speak in Nepalese or listening to birds or just the wind. No electricity meant candles after an early sunset. Squat toilets and a cold water bucket shower, of course. Viktor and I took long day hikes, which I calculate to include up and down roughly 10,000 stairs over the course of the 5 days. seriously. there are stone paths that connect the villages that are spread out all over the mountains and valleys. Apparently many paths get washed away with the monsoon season, but then the villagers all work together to rebuild. Quite a concept. The morning we left the didis sat Viktor and I down and adorned our foreheads with a red pigment dot and tied a traditional prayer cloth around our necks. It was an incredible moment. Sadly by the time I was down the mountain my dot was a huge smudge as I had wiped the sweat off my brow continually.... The photo above is a pinhole image of me and the didis made by Viktor. He carries around his darkroom and creates prints for everyone he photographs. He's a special soul.

Meanwhile, back in Pokhara Susan and Ariella had been volunteering daily at a local NGO, the Butterfly Foundation, helping prepare a new building for its preschool for orphans and other disadvantaged kids. I joined them when I returned and helped finish up the colorful paintings of butterflies, flowers, and painted a colorful mandala. Susan has an incredible natural ability and drive to befriend the local children, anywhere. We walk down the street and kids will say "Susan!" and give her a local handshake. Ariella and I have been telling her she must work with children upon returning to Seattle. She made a special friend (the most intelligent little boy we've met), Manish, whose parents own a bookstore/Gorkha knife shop. Manish's mom invited us all for dal baht and we enjoyed a lovely home cooked meal in their modest home behind the shop. We've also befriended the owner of our now local bar where we make a daily appearance, even if briefly. Jossi, the owner, painted with us at the school and has encouraged us to stay in Pokhara, although we didn't need much encouragement.

When we first arrived in Nepal we spent a few nights in Kathmandu, which is an intense and polluted city. Despite that, I loved walking the narrow streets and checking out how people live. The buddhist stupas are incredible places to visit, especially joining the tibetan buddhists walking in circles around and around the stupa turning the prayer wheels.

This is definitely phase 3 of the journey, as we're now used to paying $7/night for our own rooms (less if we share), $1 for breakfast and generally living on less than $20/day. I've gotten used to squat toilets outside of our hotel (sorry to harbor on the bathrooms, but it's a real change), and don't flinch as much when I come home to a cockroach in my bathroom. Okay, maybe I do still jump....

We'll move on from Pokhara once the buses are running again after the election. Next stop is Lumbini, the birthplace of Buddha. Back to serious heat and mosquitoes. Around the 27th we plan to travel overland to India, but I'm not sure if we'll actually be able to leave Nepal. If we do, I will be back.

Oh, I forgot to mention how great it is to greet everyone with Namaste!

So, I've spent today uploading photo albums to my blog. LONG overdue....

When you have some time, peruse my new slideshows:
Melbourne (yes, back to January!)
Sydney/Cape Tribulation
Indonesia (3 albums)

Next I'll upload Cambodia. I'm still working on editing Nepal in real time, so hopefully sooner rather than later I will share this beautiful country. How could the home of the tallest mountain in the world not be so magical?


Mar 11, 2008

earth to kenna...still here!

no excuses for my lack of postings of late, but internet was very slow to unusable in Cambodia. photo management is still taking up my 'free' time (or, time when i have to force myself to sit down and work). alas, i am still here on the road.

more to come on Indonesia, a few days in Bangkok, the temples at Angkor/Siem Reap, and Luang Prabang, Laos. My friend Lori joined us in Bangkok - and then there were four. fun to change it up with a new face from home! hopefully more of you will join along the way. luckily Lori is really into photography too, so she's fit right in with the clicking camera gang.

this morning we gave alms to the Buddhist monks & novices (Luang Prabang is full of 'em) by handing out sticky rice as they process down the block. orange is a nice color to wake up to in the wee hours of the morning. we've based ourselves here in Luang Prabang and are taking day or overnite trips -- we definitely are a bit weary of moving around every few days.

our overniter involved an elephant trek wherein we learned how to be a Mahout, a traditional elephant caretaker/driver. we wore their outfits consisting of blue pajama lowriders and a matching short sleeve button down shirt. comfy clothing, which is nice since riding an elephant bareback isn't really so comfy. highlight was giving an elephant a bath in the river with a scrub brush as they sit down in the water so just their heads are sticking out. they are such gentle beings, despite their size. We quizzed eachother on the elephant commands before our Mahout training session. Pai! Pai! "Go. Go." Ya! Ya! "No - don't break off that bamboo for a snack" Meplang! "Sit down" - that one was a bit scary, but a convenient way to get off the elephant. Instead of a minivan we took a 2 hour kayak trip down the river to get back to town. Cool to see folks having bbqs, kids fishing by sticking their heads in the water facing upstream with a snorkel mask on, bathing, washing dishes or clothing, or just hanging out along the river.

My favorite part about Luang Prabang are the monks/novice monks. they are everywhere adorned in bright orange, or various shades. the novices like to walk with umbrellas - it's fashionable according to the novice La whom Lori and I chatted with for a couple hours, but also helps from darkening the skin and makes for great photos. the novices come to study and get an education - several that we spoke with want to be tour guides once they graduate, so they practice English (or Spanish as in La's case) with tourists who make the time for it. of course we made the time. (note: not all novice monks plan to stay in the monkhood for life, it can just be a 4 year thing for school) La invited us back for 5:30pm chanting at his temple which was beautiful and incredibly meditative for me. the energy in this town is amazing. food is tasty too. oh, and internet speed has seriously improved.

what more could i ask?

photos coming - still up: Singapore, Indonesia, Bangkok, Siem Reap, Luang Prabang. Doh!

Feb 22, 2008

Gili Air and a mountain town with a man named Yoga

So I'm back in Ubud, Bali on the grid. We thought Senggigi on Lombok had slowed our pace, but in the off-season the 3 Gili islands just off the coast of Lombok are even slower, maybe as slow as Fiji time - maybe slower. After a couple amazing scuba dives (a lil' shipwreck, turtles AND sharks) in pretty rough currents but good visibility [we literally didn't have to use our fins but just drifted along - fast], we landed on the medium size island, Gili Air. [note, Gili means island in Indonesian]

No motorized vehicles on Gili Air, so the non-walking mode of transport is horse-drawn carts. We didn't need 'em though, bc the perimeter of the 900-person island is only 5 km. most of the tourist activity is on the beachfront all the way around the island, with gaps of nothing - or wrecked boats washed up, in between. The rest of the population lives in the middle of the island, which doesn't take long to cross trough. But there really wasn't much tourist activity, as we saw maybe 10-15, if that, other tourists in our 3 nights there.

Sat around one night on pillows on the open-air raised-platform-with-thatched-roof tables, singing the type of songs tourists know & love with some local guys - "every breath you take", "you look wonderful tonight" & some beatles tunes. Yoga, a.k.a. Lombok man, also sang some of his originals in Indonesian. He said one song is about tourists and how the locals should take care of the coral so the tourists will keep coming. apparently he's somewhat of an activist on the island, as Susan learned in a heart-to-heart conversation with him. Alas, when we took Yoga up on his offer the next day to be our guide up to a mountain town in north Lombok, a day trip we were considering anyway, we ended up finding out that Yoga is somewhat of a lier/scam artist who took us for a bit of a ride. and then no ride home. we paid a pricey (relatively speaking), but comparable rate for a day tour that we had researched, and his was to also include dinner & overnite at his "family business villa". what his did not include, that the other options would have, was a ride back to Senggigi after our overnite stay in Senaru, a town at the base of the island's volcano. of course we didn't realize Yoga wasn't going to take us the 2+ hour ride back until the next morning. so we had to hire another driver, as we weren't about to pay him any more money. good lesson learned. oh, and of course another guy in town who we hired the driver from said Yoga is definitely not the 'cousin' of the place where we stayed [which was so ridiculously miserable, a board of a bed, no running water in the middle of the night, and they tried to charge us for toilet paper]. Yoga's not from Senaru as he claimed, and the guy said he's really not on the up and up. When we tried to convince him that he had to drive us back, Yoga claimed that he was upfront with us and that we were now confusing and upsetting him. Sad end to what was a fun day trip - but we could've done without the meal that was included (hot water with tomatoes - aka soup - and top ramen, we opted out of the deer meat that seemed to still have hair on it).

I don't mean to harp on a negative experience, and we're certainly a bit wiser and expected to be scammed sooner rather than later, but it's humorous now. Also, we got to see a part of the island that few tourists travel through, rice paddies, markets that smell like bad fish even from the car as we drove by, cute kids in Muslim school uniforms (well, cute kids are everywhere), and Lombok folks just living their lives. Pretty primitive and very rustic.

So Yoga's song about the tourists, well, we now think it might really translate to something about keeping the tourists coming so Yoga can scam 'em. Whatever it is though, we had a great time on Gili Air.

Feb 16, 2008

Time to photograph people

Now we're talking. Don't get me wrong, traveling in first world countries is comfortable, easy and amazing. But developing countries can be a thousand times more interesting and eye opening for me. Not to mention 90% cheaper.

We stayed in Kuta, Bali our first night in Indonesia. While a dip in the quaint Indonesian style hotel pool (much nicer than the backpacker with bunks joints with shared bathrooms that we've become accustomed to) and a $1 beer at the swim up bar was a breath of fresh air, we didn't find much in the town center of Kuta.

Hopped on a plane the next day to the island of Lombok. Luckily the flight was only 20 minutes bc we all looked at eachother with a nervous grin when pieces of the plane (frames above heads where the A/C lights are) popped out upon the pressure of take off. I've never experienced such a speed upon landing a plane, but the plane did arrive in one piece.

As it's off season (the restaurants and hotels are pretty much empty), we booked a luxury villa outside the town of Senggigi online at a deep discount. Still, we didn't expect the true luxury that we've had for the past 3 nights. I highly recommend Puri Mas Boutique Resort & Spa to anyone who finds themselves here in Lombok. Once I can post photos, you'll see what I mean. The service is 5-star, and the "welcome drink" alone [fruit of the gods blended in a fresh pineapple adorned with flowers of the gods] found us in heavenly paradise.

After go go go, activity after activity, we've finally slowed our pace to hours lounging on the raised poolside bed underneath a thatched roof, walks on the beach hanging with schoolkids, and cheap Bintang pilsner. Cheap delicious food, even at the fancy hotel. Best fruit crepe breakfast i've ever tasted. Walks down roads viewing people as they live, not just for tourists. Families riding on mopeds. Scary driving - taxis beep to signal passing cars & mopeds & bikes, but we get a little too close for comfort [good thing they're not wearing ipods]. Nothing like the driving in Vietnam or India though. And no traffic.

Muslim prayer calls heard daily. Slow internet. We're going on 2 dives tomorrow, weather permitting. It's been storming for weeks (off season for a reason).

After the Gili islands for a few days we hope to head to Sumatra upon many recommendations. But, taking it day by day, as one does here. Nice way to live.

Disneyland with the death penalty

My friend Lori emailed me a description of Singapore - Disneyland with the death penalty. Only spent 4 days there, but this is right on. Only edit I might add would be: Disneyland located in one big mall with the death penalty. The city/country is literally one mall after another. Of course the A/C was much appreciated.

Outside the malls there is a unique blend of cultures - Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim and the thousands of ex-pats. Our favorite ex-pat is Arnaud, a friend of my good friend Jeanette. He and his fiancee Puy treated us to a riverside meal of the traditional chili crab, set amongst a backdrop of Disneyland-esque structures & neon lights. We also enjoyed their hospitality for a poolside bbq at their highrise apt - I do miss cooking & especially grilling.

I treated myself to an eyebrow threading (Indian-style) in Little India, and we adorned long robes while visiting the big mosque at the Arab Quarter. It was fun to listen to a teacher explain Islam to a group of Chinese schoolkids. They seemed more interested in us taking their pictures.

Our visit was timely given Chinese New Year's, Year of the Rat, and we stayed right in the heart of the action, with a Buddhist temple next door. We weren't too keen on some of our Year of the Rat predictions, but I liked the one that described Tigers (that's me) traveling a lot this year.

Singapore was a nice gateway into SE Asia, as most folks do speak English and it is clean. Ariella chewed some gum upon arrival, luckily she didn't get caught. No death penalty for us, phew.

Dive Master K

Okay, well maybe I'm not a dive master, but a dive master's student & PADI certified diver I am! After good times exploring the highlights of Melbourne & Sydney, we flew up to Cairns to experience the Great Barrier Reef. Wonders do abound. Since we couldn't swim in the shoreline oceans (deadly box jellyfish disallow swimming in the region for half the year), the obvious thing to do was to get our open water SCUBA certification.

I've always wanted to get certified but also feared it. Breathing under water? Snorkeling I love since breathing out of the water is just a head bop away. Not so when dealing with surfacing from up to 18 meters deep (limit for the basic PADI certification). But after our first 30 minute straight session in the pool I realized breathing oxygen from a tank is way smoother than breathing 50/50 air/salt water when snorkeling. I wanted to come up after a few minutes due to some panic that I might cough or something and not be able to breath, but knew I had to keep going through the series of skills our Dutch instructor Sjouke was demonstrating and testing us on - passing the course was more of a driver than allowing panic to win. And it worked. Once I gained more confidence in the breathing, skills like filling up my mask with water and clearing it by blowing air out through my nose became more challenging.

So we passed the written exam and moved on to 2 nites/3 days liveaboard a large catamaran that just hangs out in the outer reef. Now the fun begins.

I mean, if you're going to get certified, the barrier reef isn't too shabby. Problem is we may have just set the bar really high for ourselves. 9am on the 2nd boat day we jumped for joy as we passed all of the underwater instructional dive tests, many of which were performed kneeling on the sand 12+ meters deep (that's over 36 feet for those of you who are slow with the converstions). The best part was that we still had 6 more 'fun' dives without a guide. It was quite a high the first dive where just the three of us mastered the buddy system, the air checks, ear equalizing, navigation, safety stop for 3 min at 5 meters before surfacing. Susan, a natural athlete at any sport, was a perfect leader & made sure we were following everything we just learned.

The final day I had some ear issues and ended up not being able to dive. After trying to equalize for several minutes to no avail and sharp pain, I signaled that I had to go up. I temporarily became totally dizzy as can happen - Susan and Ariella were right there to drag me back to the boat just as we had learned for such situations, and the dizziness went away. Kinda scary though. Luckily for me, we were at dive spots where the best diving was in shallow water where snorkeling was just as amazing. I mean, amazing snorkeling.

I won't even try to describe the other world that we saw under there - i'll let the underwater photos do the talking [that is, once I have a fast internet connection to post more photos - I'm in Lombok, Indonesia as I write]. Imagine a soundtrack of breathing Darth Vader style. All of you divers know what I mean - for those who haven't yet - just do it. Most of the earth is ocean, you gotta check it out. I feel very very blessed, as I do every day right now.

Jan 29, 2008

Aussie Aussie Aussie

First few days in Melbourne have been chock full of national events. Arrived on Australia Day to see drunken Aussies wearing flags as capes, or headresses made of hundreds of tiny aussie flags. girls in aussie flag bikinis, you name it. caught fireworks a la 4th of July, along with more drunken nationalist aussies. good times.

Day two Australian Open mixed doubles and men's finals. Nice timing. Bought grounds passes to watch the final matches on the big screen right outside the arena with the rest of the folks who couldn't afford to get inside, but wanted to feel the energy through the doors & walls of the stadium. Tsonga vs. Djokovic was a brilliant match til the end. Great drama as always. Serb and French fans alike adorned face paintings and chanted loudly, as expected. The 'treat' for us and our mates outside was a 45 minute performance by an australian teeny bopper band The Veronicas. Bad, but humorous to hear the lil' gals screaming in the front row.

Day 3 was the official bank holiday for Australia Day. Quiet as lots of folks were gone for the long weekend & businesses closed. I finally spent some time trying to organize and manage and keyword the over 3000 photographs i've already taken. yikes. it's quite an undertaking already. but that's the reason i'm here, right?

Jan 24, 2008

Palm trees in Mordor?

Today is the last day of our near 3 week road trip in the land of Kiwis. Spent the past 3 nights in what truly is the most spectacular landscape in NZ - the Milford Sound. While we didn't pay to take the "Lord of the Rings Tour" from Queenstown [not sure what part of Middle-earth they actually show you], we found ourselves saying OOOH, AAAAH, WOW and pulling the car over yet again as we couldn't pass without capturing (or trying to) the beauty of the jetting peaks, mossy forests, monumental waterfalls with perma-rainbows, a thousand sheep being herded down the road (literally), layers of mountain ranges and valleys, bridges crossing over wide rivers, more sheep, and more sheep... Ariella and Susan braved an evening kayak in the sound, while I preserved my back by seeing the sound via a boat. Easier to take photos from a boat, but the gals cruised under waterfalls and used their oars as sails bc it was so windy. Luckily the wind was at their backs!

We've covered a ton of scenic routes, adventures and kilometers on our road trip from Auckland to Queenstown. Highlights include:

Outside Auckland in Pukekohe: Bill & Helen Kilkolly (my uncle Craig's friends) hosted us for 2 splendid nights on their 10 acre farm. They hooked us up with their son-in-law's abseiling company for a full day canyoning trip in Piha (incl a 150 ft. vertical drop!), helped us plan out our full itinerary for NZ, introduced us to their pigs, dogs, horses and cattle, served us home cooked meals, insisted we do laundry and simply are the most charming people we met here in NZ.

Rotorua: Do not, I repeat, do not sit in the mud baths at the geothermal springs in Rotorua. Instead of Hell's Gate, it should be called Smell's Gate. Even after throwing a tank top and a t-shirt away, I literally still cannot get the residual sulfur smell out of 1/4 of my clothing. Don't do it! Seeing the bubbling earth was cool, just don't cover your body in it.

Taupo: A skydiving mecca. Susan's birthday skydive. I wasn't planning to dive 'til about 1/2 hour beforehand when we saw the parachutes coming down over a lake the size of Singapore on a crystal clear day. Had to do it. Didn't have as much time as Susan to freak myself out about it. But I surely freaked out getting on the tiny plane, knowing that I was to be the first jumper, sensing that my tandem partner Laci (a Hungarian) was seriously crazy, seeing the extreme sport junkie Susan panic, answering to Laci when he asked me if I was scared, and then inching toward the open door to FREEFALL!!! there i was, there was the earth below. what a serious rush. 45 seconds lasts a long time when freefalling from 12k feet. Once Laci pulled the chute, we swirled round and round in circles, flew so close to Susan & Reno and could yell to them, and cruised in for a smooth landing. what a flight.

Picton: I like that Kiwis call backpacking trails "Tracks" and backpackers (the hiking variety) "Trampers". We didn't do any overnight tramping, but we did enjoy a day hike on Queen Charlotte's Track. Took a speed boat out to a tiny bay and hiked amongst ferns with views of the water all along the way.

Kaikoura: Hanging with the mammals. While swimming with the wild Dusky dolphins in the wee hours of the morning was exhilarating, beautiful and mesmerising, I was surprised to find that I actually enjoyed swimming with the fur seals even more. I felt like an in-water spectator with the dolphins, even though they were less than a foot from my snorkel mask at times as the babies and moms followed each other in circles and lept out of the water doing backflips. The dolphins are pretty speedy and don't really stop. The seals, on the other hand, like to perform for their visitors (human or other seals) as well, but are homebodies. Once we swam to their alcove at high tide, I didn't have to move around too much to have a swim party with the seals - they swam around me in circles, flipped over and swam upside down, shot by with both finesse and speed, looked at me underwater with those cute big eyes, and were just happy to be playing around. The other half of their lives (or maybe more than half), they just sit around, bask in the sun and sleep (and snore). Not a bad life.

Susan is from Alaska and the scenery here in the Milford Sound is quite reminiscent of the Alaska 'wow', except for one detail - the palm trees and big ferns on trunks that look like palm trees. I don't remember seeing palm trees in Mordor on the big screen.

I think we'll all be confused when we have to drive a car with the steering wheel on the left, driving on the right hand side of the road. alas, that'll be a while.

p.s. I'll try to write more often and briefer from here on out......

Jan 6, 2008

Lucky Water

Fiji: Beachouse (backpacker resort btwn Nadi and Suva)
Jan 2-4

Walking out 50+ yards with warm (often hot) seagreen water only up to our knees (serious high and low tides), looking back at our resort nestled in a rainforest of palm trees, decorated with hammocks and a huge swing hanging from a palm tree over the water, it began to sink in that we really have left seattle. Seriously left seattle. We did a little ocean dance and screamed some ‘woohoos’. And so it begins.

I'm reminded that my senses are heightened as I approach new destinations. Straight off the plane I took in whiffs of that distinct tropical aroma – must be the humid air exuding some kind of scent. Birds chirp endlessly - both right next to our garden bure (aka thatched roof hut), but also off in the distance. Fiji Bitter tastes exactly like a nice tropical beer should, and my teeth recognized the texture of coconut as I gnawed on some freshly cracked pieces.

My little brother Luke recently told me about a couple extra senses he has – a sense of humor and sense of rhythm. We’ve already experienced the humor of the Fijians who work here – they learn your name quickly and then like to joke around with you, including throwing guests in the pool. Turns out this joking around is a huge part of the Fijian way.

So the pool. As with most cultures, the first week of the new year brings with it the traditions calling for luck in all aspects of life. Here in Fiji, submersing oneself in water is the key to a prosperous 2008. During daily tea time (4pm) yesterday, the guests and the staff were throwing each other in the pool fully clothed. Jumping in along with the person they dragged over too. As more and more of the guests were going in, we had a feeling it would soon be our turn. Sure enough, “Your turn America!” Ariella ‘cheated’ by taking her skirt off and jumping in with just her suit on. Next it was me, and I went in wearing my mumu with the staff member who jumped in holding onto/pushing me. We thought it was just one of those silly 'let's throw everyone in the pool' moments, but we found out later that it had a greater purpose.

Chatting late night with two Aussies who live in Suva, I asked if there is a way to experience a bit of Fiji traditions without going on a paid ‘village tour’ wherein you know you’re just getting a show. Wes and Ruth laid out a perfect plan for us, including rudimentary scratched out maps of where to get off the bus just over a bridge and wait by a hut to get picked up by a little speed boat. Now this is my kind of adventure.

Nice way to start 2008 being cleansed with some lucky Fijian water.