Friday, May 9, 2014

Post-Sabbatical Highlights From Each Country - What a Trip!

While I sip on a dirty martini in downtown Montreal because United cancelled my connecting flight to Newark, compensating me with a 'Quality' Hotel in the middle of nowhere and 3 $8 coupons that can only be used at the airport in 1 sitting at either Starbucks, Burger King or a diner, I reflected on my trip, thinking I should come up with highlights from each country. 
Thank you United for giving me this reflection time.

During my Sabbatical in 2014, i was in:
* America for 13 days, 
* South East Asia for 66 days, 
* Sub-Indian Continent for 32 days, 
* Europe for 5 days 
* Canada for .5 days. 

I read 15 books. I filled up 4 journals. I ate simple, but mouth-watering food. I laughed. I engaged with locals and travelers. I savored alone time. I puked 13 times. I experienced generosity. I star-gazed. I admired temples. I witnessed new cultures. I hiked through the mountains. I relaxed on beaches. I found my zen.  

My Highlights

   SOUTHERN VIETNAM: Jan 5 - Jan 7
Cities: Hi Cho Minh, Can Tho, Chau Doc

Food: Ho Chi Minh street food tour with Back of the Bike Tours. Nothing like arriving to a city and heading straight to the streets for some of the best food of my 4 month trip. (Blog Post)
CAMBODIA: Jan 8 - Jan 20
Cities: Kep, Kampot, Phnom Penh, Siem Reap

Food: $3-7 Kampot black pepper crabs & street vendors selling gluten-free coconut rice flour waffles
 PeopleI visited Doris Dillon School in Kampot Province giving them books & supplies. (Blog Post)
Culture: Watching the Sunrise over Angkor Wat Temple and Exploring the surrounding Angkor complex from dawn to dusk. (Blog Post)

Activity70km Round-trip bike ride to Banteay Srei, pink sandstone temple, stopping at street vendors to try the 'best noodle soup' in Cambodia and steamed rice wrapped bananas (Blog Post)

Favorite Experience
My impromptu overnight stay on Rabbit Island involved laughing with local kids as they curiously and creatively played with my camera, watching the sunset from a hammock, helping a villager pick up leaves with a stick...(Blog Post)

NORTHERN LAOS: Jan 21 - Feb 2
Cities: Luang Prabang, Luang Namtha, Nong Khiaw

                                         Food:  Coconut milk rice flour pancake

Activity: Rope swing into crystal blue waterfall pools

Culture: Morning fresh fish and vegetable markets 

Favorite Experience3 day, 2 night hike with Tiger Trails. No electricity. No running water. No electronics. A lot of sticky rice, communal dinners, roaming animals, pick-up soccer games & rodent eating. (Blog Post)

Cities: Sapa, Hanoi

FoodSelf-guided Hanoi street food crawl (Blog Post), trying Pho, Xoi xeo, Vietnamese coffee, Banh cuon, bun cha, bun ca & che. All super delicious. No! I didn't get food poisoning from street food!

Favorite ExperienceSpending time with Jenny and her daughters in Hanoi, who I met on the train, after they took care of me, helping me recover from my nasty food poisoning at a restaurant in Sapa. (Blog Post)
Myanamar (Burma): Feb 11 - Feb 27
Cities: Yangon, Bagan, Heho (Inle Lake), Thandwe (Ngapali Beach), Mawlymine, Hpa'an

Food: Morning street food breakfast of fish mohinga

Culture: Exploring the temples of Myanmar on old school bikes without all the tourists - like the overcrowded Angkor complex in Cambodia. (Blog Post)

Activity: Biking, boat riding and wine drinking with Alberto in Inle Lake (Blog Post)

Favorite: Hiking up Mt Zwegabin, meeting monks and other locals along the way with my new travel buddies, Melissa and Cassie. (Blog Post)
Bhutan: Feb 28 - Mar 8
Cities: Thimphu, Paro, Punakha, Gantey (8 day tour with Smile Bhutan)

Food: I was not in love with the Bhutan cuisine, but the Chili Cheese dish was my favorite.

Activity: Hiking to Tiger's Nest, a temple that dates back to the 7th century built into the side of the mountain. It's no wonder why it's selected as the Bhutan guidebook covers. (Blog Post)

Favorite Experience: Staying at the farm house of the sister-in-law of our driver, cozying up on mattresses on the floor with Katie & Jill in the prayer room. I woke up to the 1st snow of the season, which I played in with the daughter of our host. (Blog Posts - Day 58 and Day 59)

Nepal: March 9 - April 1

Cities: Kathmandu (Patan, Pashupati, Boudhanath, Swaya), Everest Range, Bhaktapur, Nagarkot

Food - Fresh & thick yogurt in Bhaktapur (Juju Dhau / King Curd)

Culture - Massive white Stupas with gold gilded tops, contrasting against the blue sky, and surrounded by reverent Buddhists...and monkeys.

People - Hardworking porters (and Yaks) climb the mountain carrying hiker's backpacks, supplies to the teahouses and gear for the big expeditions to the top of Everest.
In memory of the 4/18/2014 tragedy where 16 porters died in a deadly avalanche on Mt. Everest.

Activity - 18 day hike with no technology, freezing cold nights, a lot of dal baht, stunning landscapes and serene surroundings. The top challenge was crossing the steep and icy Chola mountain pass.
Favorite Experience - Reaching the top of Kalapathar (5550 meters) & my tears of joy overlooking the stunning view of the Everest range. Mt. Everest (8850 meters) is the dark mountain peak behind me and due to perspective it looks shorter than the snow capped mountain (Lhotse) on the right!
Thailand: April 2 - April 13
Island: Ko Pagnan (Blog Post

Food: Fresh Coconuts

People: Awesome crew of people hanging out at the Sanctuary

Activity: Lounging around the sanctuary reading books, getting massages, staring memorized at the blue waters & reaching zen...

Favorite Experience: Waking up 11 mornings in a row to magical & peaceful sunrises. The cicadas would start chirping in unison every morning at 5:58am for a solid 15 minutes or more. (And No, these photos are not enhanced).

SO, that's it. Time sure flies, but what a trip. My parting words are:

"If it excites you & scares the crap out of you at the same time, it probably means you should do it!"

NEXT STOP: 1 week in California, 48 hours in London and 48 hours in Paris. 

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Day 87 - 97 - Thailand: 11 days of island life: Renewal & Revitalization

How does one end 3.5 months of travel, visiting temples, street food vendors, rolling mountains, clear lakes and bustling cities of South East Asia and observing untouched Bhutanese culture and climbing mountain peaks in the Himalayas of the sub-Indian continent? I chose Ko Pagnan, Thailand to cleanse, relax and zen-ify for 11 days.

Before I left for the island, I had told people I'm escaping to an island in Thailand at the end of my trip to read and not talk to people to wrap up my trip. I figured being a hermit was a good contrast to the populated and nonstop concrete jungle I call home, Manhattan. I should have know that 'plans' never work out as expected.

My lone wolf vision ended before it barely began when i ended up on a ferry with 2 lovely women, Nikki and Sharon:

and I met a whole crew of awesome people whose company I thoroughly enjoyed.

And you know what? Good company is exactly what I needed! At the same time, I got the necessary end of my trip 'me' time to process all my experiences from the last 3.5 months. I truly feel zen and although I could still keep travelling, living the life of the vagabond backpacker, I'm at peace with coming homing for my 'domestic adventures' in the United states.

It's not like my international adventures are coming to a halt though! I have London and Paris at the end of April and more European get-a-ways to come with Alberto in London until the end of August.

So with that said, here are some snapshots of daily island life:

Sharon caught me in this pose, saying hello to the sun before I went for my morning dip:

Daily 5:30am wakeup to see pink skies, red egg sunsets and hear the cicadas awake, chirping in unison like clockwork at 5:58am in short cycles of intense volume to silence throughout the morn.
Delicious fresh coconuts,

Short hikes up and down to the adjacent bays with views of the aquamarine water below

sweaty and hot afternoons from the shelter of a shaded hammock,

Late afternoon steam room sessions before an early evening know the usual island life stuff!

I left Thailand at the start of Songkran Festival (Apr 13-15). This is the traditional New Year's Day celebrated by throwing, or rather dousing, people with water - whether with water guns, hoses or buckets! This ritual represents a time for cleansing and renewal.

While I have no regrets in my life and I'm fortunate enough to presently have my health, a job, an exciting city to live in and wonderful people in my life, my recent travels did provide me with a feeling of renewal and revitalization that only made it fitting to witness the 'cleansing' and joyous water fights between the Thais along the streets and in cars as I drove to the airport to return home.

NEXT STOP: 1 week in Cali

Friday, April 11, 2014

Day 84-86 - Nepal: Sunrise, Sunset in Nagarkot

Imagine a bus, comfortably seating 30, fill with 35, then 40, then 45, then you start losing count as more pile inside while disproportionately less get off. In addition, there's people climbing the stairs to the roof of the bus to hang off from above.

A woman boards and hands her toddler to a man, who holds the child for a bit. Later, she gets off and is replaced by another woman with a toddler, who also hands her child to this stranger, who hugs the little girl close to him like its his own daughter.

This constant flow of people and exchange of goods and babies sums up my 50 minute bus ride to Nagarkot. I snapped a photo as I left the bus, and this picture nowhere near captures it at full capacity. (Pic on camera. Coming soon.).

Once in Nagarkot, the place known for watching sunrises and sunsets with a view of the Himalayas in the distance,

I pretty much did nothing for 2 full days, except watching sunrises and sunsets.

Although, I don't understand people who chatter away during a sunrise. To me, a sunrise is the time to savor the silence, listen to nature arise alongside the bright sun and reflect about the day ahead. I clearly am on a different page than most tourists, but after 18 days of hiking, it was nice to sit on my butt, go to bed early, and wake up even earlier.

And I even ventured out to a paneer and mozzarella cheese factory, but unfortunately, they did not offer tastings! Here's the fridge of cheese that sits in here for 2 months before its ready to be eaten!

NEXT STOP: 11 Days on a beach in Thailand

Day 83 - Nepal: Holy days, gluten free treats & King Curd in Bhaktapur

Half of yesterday I was with a tour guide, seeing another big white stupa, Swayambhunath:
And then I said goodbye to him in Bhaktapur, where I wandered the streets admiring the antiquated red brick buildings with ornately hand carved wood bordering the windows, including the 55-window palace in Durbar square:
And I found a restaurant that served a chicken 'pizza' made of gluten free lentil bread...yes, food makes me happy!

The next morning made me instantly think, "NOW, This is what I love about travelling."

I woke up at 5:30am and wandered the streets for an hour and a half, taking in the early morning routines and soaking up the empty Durbar Square:
Bhaktapur is a Holy town. Everyone awake at that hour was heading to their favorite temples or streetside shrines to pray. It involved a mixture of ringing bells, touching certain spots of the holy site, sprinkling rice, resting the head against a wall or statue, sprinklng red powder or flowers, etc. 

Here is a surreptitious video I did that gives you an idea of the deafening bell ringing noise before 6am.

Women are carrying plates with a mini brass pitcher set in the middle among a selection of different colored powders and offerings in compartments around the plate. I walked behind a woman who carried sprinkled red powder from her plate on a presumably holy stone and then continued through the streets to her favorite prayer spots, stopping to talk with her friends who she undoubtedly sees every ritualistic morning.

I'm not going to lie. It does seem like it borders on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder to be unable to walk by certain spots without touching, bowing or chanting. 

If the women were not praying, they were at the wells in the streets collecting water. The men who were not praying we're hanging out at their local tea shop. I stopped by one and bought 'Wo' a fried lentil cake that's naturally gluten free. 

Then I tried 'Wo' from a competing vendor and another friend lentil item, but in my expert opinion, his 'wo' was not as good.

But Bhaktapur's famous culinary treat is Juju Dhau, king curd. Its a sweet yoghurt made from naturally sweet buffalo milk that's boiled in a pot with coconut, cardamon and cashew, cooled, and then combined with a bit of an older batch to introduce the lactobacillus that makes it curdle. It's creamy goodness is eaten for breakfast, snack or dessert. I tried all 3!

And with that final treat, I walked to the local bus station to head to the hill town Nagarkot.

NEXT STOP: 2 Final nights in Nepal watching the sunrises in Nagatkot