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

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Day 78-82 - Nepal: Making my way down the mountain to the end of my 18- Day technology freeze

So, I finally succombed to my sickness and had a congested head and chest. This made for a slightly miserable final uphill climb, gasping for breath. BUT I think below is a pretty good depiction of how I felt most of trip:
The Crew I hiked with up to Everest Basecamp, Kala Patthar, across Cho La pass, up Gokyo Ri and back down the mountain.

NEXT STOP: Day of shopping in Kathmandu and overnight trip to Bhakatpur.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Day 74-77 - Nepal: Freezing our butts off at the Gokyo Glacier lakes

It's bloody cold each night as I crawl into my sleeping bag. The need to pee mid-night is an unbearable thought and requires motivation. Right now, I'm feeling like a rag doll. I think its the combination of the continued high altitude, the Cho La pass that shattered me and a looming sickness that i fear will soon attack.

On Day 74, I only walked 2 hours from Thagnag to Gokyo and I was struggling in my head. I was comotose in the lodge all day.

On Day 75, we hiked to the furthest Gokyo lakes (#4 and #5), even though they were frozen. They are normally icy blue. It was not significantly hilly but we were still in 4790 meter altitude and the snow was deep in parts. I used my hiking pole to test the snows deepness, but a few times I fell knee deep and our guide once sunk to his hips! (Photo on camera).

But what was amazing about today's hike was the pure silence. I sat in the snow staring at a glacier and the snowy mountains around me and I did not even here a bird chirping.

On the way back from the lakes, the wind picked up freezing my cheeks. It took us 2 hours and 40 minutes to walk there and we raced back in 2 hours. I know I planned to be vegetarian on the mountain but everyone was eating yak and fries and I could not resist. Yak....I guess it tastes like a cow? Definitely a change from Dahl baht. (Picture on camera)

On Day 76, our goal was to hike up Gokyo Ri (5360 meters - less than Kala Patthar) at sunrise, but the weather was crap so we slowly made it out the door. I dragged every step up that steep mountain. I struggled to get a full breath - A combo of the altitude and my impending sickness. But I made it to the top for my completely obscured view. That 2 hour and 30 minute hike was the most brutal day yet.

On Day 77, we passed the only unfrozen lake but its so small that it does not sparkle icy blue like the others. But as you can see, its still pretty stunning.
NEXT STOP: Making my way down the mountain

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Day 73 - Nepal: Slightly feared for my life crossing the Cho la pass

After finishing the last 2 hours of yesterday's hike in a snow storm,
we set off today to cross the cho la pass from 4830 meters up to 5368 meters and back down to 4700 meters. It was so cold in my room that evening that my camelback and water bottle froze.

Everything I said about the hike up to Everest Basecamp not being too physically challenging does not apply to today's hike. Today required endurance, strength, fortitude, balance, mental focus, and NO fear. We hiked for 5 hours and 30 minutes Total stopwatch time (nearly 7 hours with breaks) in the snow.

It started with nearly 2 hours of straight uphill, including scrambling up steep, snowy and icy rocks. We then walked along a snowy ledge that had enough space for one foot at a time. I avoided looking down the slope to the right. We then hit a short slippery downhill and uphill where we were greeted with another snowy, rocky and gut-wrenching steep mountainside, but this time we were going down it.

View from bottom of mountain we descended

For 2 hours, it required a solid side-step grip of my hiking boot, along with my 1 hiking pole since my other pole broke 10 minutes into the hike.

It was so slippery I could not help but wonder if I was going to slip and crack my head on a rock or slide to my peril down the mountainside. Needless to say, it required a lot of mental consternation.

And composure. Especially when my 1 guide, who was a man of few words, looked up at some falling rock and snow and said, "Hurry. Danger. Potential avalanche."

Here's a video of once we made it down:

And the fun did not end there. We had more snow capped rocks to carefully plod and balance along, followed by more uphill in the snow. A chill breeze would blow by while the sun blared on my head, making me feel overheated on the uphill and cold on the downhill. My lips became a chapped and blistered nightmare.

By the last hill, I resorted to my passing of the time counting technique. I counted to 60 twice, then I would sing a pearl jam song from the Ten album in my head, and then I counted to 60 twice again. Sounds nuts but it pushed me through that remaining finish.

I never was so elated to change into my 'lodge' clothes and eat Dahl baht the whole time oin the mountain.

NEXT STOP: 4 nights near the Gokyo glacier lakes

Day 71-72 - Nepal: I did it!! Hike up to Everest Basecamp (5364 meters) and Kala Patthar (5550 meters)

I did it!!!

Basecamp (5364 meters)
We walked along a relatively flat path with a view of the camp in the near distance, 

but I think the lack of hiking up a peak made it somewhat anticlimactic. With that said, the large glacier near the camp was pretty cool and the scenery was magnificent. We also were early in the season so only a few people were there!

Kala Patthar (5550 meters)
(Picture to come)

Now Kalapathar, with a view of Mt Everest was far from anticlimactic. Here's what I wrote upon returning from the hike.

I just went up Kala Patthar and I'm still on a high. It was 1 hour and 40 minutes of switchback uphill to 5550 meters. My camelback froze from the cold. I broke the hike into pieces with breaks along the way and music to push me through. When we got to the top, there were less than 30 people and as soon as I caught my breath, I saw the clear view of Mt. Everest to the left of me with the valley below. Once the sun rose behind the mountain, the sky lit up, blinding the view of Mt Everest, but brightening the valley below.

I soaked up the view and the feeling of accomplishment. Maybe it was the altitude's effect of lack of oxygen to the brain or perhaps I was just proud of making it to where I dreamed about going for years, but I became flooded with emotion & tears of joy...getting sentimental in my old age.

I felt proud, elated and awestruck by the surroundings. It was one of those I wish I could bottle up the moment feelings. 

NEXT STOP: Cross cho la mountain pass to get to the Gokyo glacier lakes

Day 65-70 - Nepal: The challenges on the way to Basecamp

My photos are on my camera and I don't have access to the memory card yet. But here's a photo of our 1st sighting of Mt. Everest (mountain on the left with the clouds above it) where I did a headstand (captured on my camera).

The challenges on the way to Everest Basecamp.....

You notice the altitude as your breath shortens and heart rate quickens ascending hills or even stairs in the lodge. In the evenings, I can feel my heart-rate is increased and sometimes I'm short of breathe or a tad-bit light headed the higher we go. All manageable when I employ the motto "slowly but surely, taking pit stops along the way.

When I told some people that I was hiking to basecamp, they gasped thinking it was a big athletic challenge. However, now that I'm making my way to Basecamp, I don't see it really as physically challenging, but more as mentally challenging. (Disclaimer: I did complete the IronMan 7 months ago & my hiking companion is a professional Thai boxer, so our baseline of fitness is solid.)

So far, the hikes are only 2-4 hours each day, which includes breaks and very long lunches. And we are walking realllly slow, just enjoying our time in nature. 

But even with taking our time, we still get to the lodge no later than 3pm with a LOT of time to kill. "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." With the downtime, I can read or write in my journal or nap to escape the cold. There's no technology, which is completely refreshing, but it's also a challenge to keep you and your thoughts occupied for multiple hours. 


I feel like I should put this as a challenge, but so far the lack of showering has not bothered me. Of course, my stench by the end of the 18 days might change my tune. My routine to stay clean is to cycle between my 2 shirts, 2 long sleeves and 3 socks. When I arrive to the lodge after hiking, I clean my face, underarms and girl parts with face wipes. I then put on my 'lodge clothes' feeling relatively clean!


I blame my California roots for why I am perpetually cold. During the hike, I feel fine because I'm on the move. But when I arrive to the lodge, and they have not lit the stove, which is fueled by yak dung, all I want to do is curl up into my sleeping bag until dinner, watching the steam hang in the air as I breathe. (And yes, there also is steam from my pee over the squat toilet.)


Any celiac or gluten intolerant person will have no problem on this hike, but the options are limited:
Breakfast: Rice or oat porridge topped with my flax seed and chia seeds and 2 eggs
Lunch: Dahl Baht (and they give you seconds)
Dinner: More dahl Baht or some sort of potato dish with eggs

Needless to say this gets a bit repetitive, but my post-hike snack of sunbutter and dark chocolate or an energy bar hits the spot!! 

NEXT STOP: Hiking to Basecamp (5364 meters) and Kala Patthar (5645 meters)

Friday, April 4, 2014

Day 64 - Nepal: Scariest & most dangerous flight in the world from Kathmandu to Lukla

I have already tackled one of the top-rated scariest flights in the world into Pato, Bhutan.

Next up is a flight into Lukla, Nepal - a short, uphill runway with the number of accidents common enough that I don't want to know the data.

(Photo: Allan Grey) 

There were 16 of us who boarded the tiny plane - with me as the 2nd to last person to board. I had a choice of a seat in the aisle (1 on 1 side and 2 on the other) in the first row behind the open pilot area or a window 'emergency exit' seat in the way back. I chose the latter.

For those who don't know one of my hidden secrets, but I am frightfully afraid of flying. So, of course, I immediately regretted my seat decision, remembering how the last rows of planes are always the 'death seats' if something goes wrong.  But then after examining the size of the plane, I realized if something happens, we're all going down, not just me in the back row. This oddly assured me.

About 10 minutes into the flight, the stewardess leans over to me and said,
"Do you have any hesitations about this flight?" 

Well, as a matter of fact, I am scared shitless, I thought. And then I realized, perhaps she's talking to me because I'm sitting in the emergency exit row. Well, its a bit late to decide if I'm equipped to sit in the emergency exit row because, yes, I'm pissing myself right now, and will be of no use in case of a crisis, my monologue in my head ensued.

After a period of sitting with my silent thoughts and her staring at me, she finally said, "you can put your comments on this card if you do."

So, maybe I was a tad-bit on edge! I had a little laugh at myself, sat back and enjoyed the view. The Himalayas came into sight, and the stewardess pointed to the different mountains, stating their names, inviting me to lean over her lap to take photos.

All was going rather pleasantly until we started descending and we hit a wind pocket. "Oh shit!" I said aloud and I grabbed the stewardess's hand and held on to it for a good minute until finally I realized I can't continue holding her hand the whole flight. She just smiled with amusement.

5 minutes later the emergency exit door to the right of me started rattling. I started to look up at her with dread, and she creeped her hands nearer to the left to protect them from my death hold, and said, "Its OK." as if its normal for a door to pop in and out mid-flight. But immediately I was distracted by the sight through the pilot's window of the runway on the side of the mountain quickly approaching us. I was comforted by the clear visibility and before I knew it, we landed with a thud and a whirl of noise and a sharp right turn away from the wall in front of us.

The stewardess made some sort of genuflection, reminding me of the catholic sign of the cross. Yikes, even she's grateful we landed. she probably thinks we are going to go down every time she boards the plane!

But, I survived. Here's a video someone else posted on YouTube to get an idea of the flight. (Picture this but with brown and snow covered mountains.)

NEXT STOP: Slow hike up to Everest Basecamp by March 17th.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Day 63 - Nepal: Packing for Everest Basecamp... eek!

I'm as ready as I can be. 

With an extensive packing list created and scoured multiple times in December, I return to it now, checking off the items in my list as I lay them down on my bed.

I ran a few errands in Thamel, Katmandu where every knock-off hiking essential is available at your fingertips - bargaining a must.

The pharmacy visit was the most unique of the errands, arriving to a small shack with rows of shelves stuffed with boxes of every drug possible. With every inquiry of a drug, the pharmacist would spin toward his managed chaos and pull a box from the middle of a stack, producing the exact product within seconds.

Here's my belongings for the next 18 days:

6 Iceberg underware
1 SmartWool sports bra
1 Ibex sports bra tank top
1 Convertible Trekking pants
1 fleece pants (lodge clothes)
1 Marmot rain pants
1 Smartwool pants (layering and lodge clothes)
1 SmartWool long sleeve hiking shirt
1 Asics long sleeve hiking shirt
1 SmartWool long sleeve shirt (lodge clothes)
2 short sleeve hiking shirts
1 pair of arm warmers
1 EMS gortex rain/wind Jacket with hood
1 Icebreaker hooded fleece (260)
1 Patagonia fleece (450) (Lodge clothes)
1 EMS down jacket
3 SmartWool PHD hiking socks
1 SmartWool socks (Lodge clothes)
1 waterproof sandals (Lodge clothes)
1 Down Booties (Lodge clothes)
1 Salomon Trekking Boots
1 SmartWool hiking beanie
1 wool, fleece-lined beanie with ear covers (Lodge clothes)
1 fake northface fleece neck/ear band
1 baclava
1 heavy waterproof gloves
1 wool mittens (lodge clothes)
1 safari-stle wide-brimmed sunhat
1 bandana

Gear / Accessories
- Gregory daypack
- Lots of zip lock bags of various sizes
- sunglasses
- 2 each hand/toe warmers
- sea to summit quick dry towel
- 2 sea to summit dry bags (keep gear dry in bag Porter carries)
- stopwatch
- headlamp with extra batteries
- 1.5 liter camelpack
- 1 liter camelpack water bottle
- 27oz kleen kanteen water bottle
- hiking poles
- sleeping bag liner
- sleeping bag
**no inflatable pillow needed. All lodges have a pillow.

Toiletries / Meds 

- Toothbrush/toothpaste
- Face soap
- face lotion / eye cream
- ChapStick with sunscreen (must!)
- sunscreen (face/body)
- tiger balm
- fingernail scissors
- face wipes / body wipes (alternative form of shower)
- tissues
- 3 rolls of toilet paper
- extra hair ties
- eye mask
- ear plugs
- Steripod and water purification drops
- mini-med kit (bandaids, neosporin, alcohol wipes, 2nd skin)
- ibuprofin
- melotonin
- grapefruit seed extract drops (natural cold prevention)
- mucinex / cold meds
- immodium - don't plan on taking!
- Antibiotics (Cipro) - don't plan on taking!
- altitude sickness meds don't plan on taking!
- ginko biloba (natural remedy supposedly for altitude sickness)
- Tums / acid soothe
- Acidophilus
- Flaxseed powder

Activity bag
- journal / pens
- iPod
- kindle
- camera (extra batteries / memory card)
- charger / converter / portable battery chargercharger

- loaf of gluten free bread (thanks katie!)
- jar of sunbutter
- 3 bars dark chocolate (thanks katie)
- gluten free cookies (sold at Kathmandu market!)
- 15 macrobiotic protein bars or probars
- 4 honey stinger gels
- 3 packs honey stinger electrolyte chews
- 14 decaf tea bags
- bag of chia seeds (great on oatmeal in morning)

NEXT STOP: Most dangerous flight in the work to Lukla

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Day 62 - Nepal: Ancient temples, Cremated bodies, Big White Stupa

Upon arrival to Kathmandu, Nepal, I noticed how reminiscent of India it was to and rubble everywhere, chaotic traffic, pedestrians crossing like a Frogger Atari game, cattle in the road nonplussed about the circumventing, zooming traffic and a lot of trash - everywhere.

On 1 of my 2 days pre-18 day hike, Craig, a Scottish guy who's a Muay Thai boxer living in Phuket and my soon-to-be hiking companion, and I had a full day guided tour visiting holy sites around Katmandu.

This area of town has ancient temples of various styles and eras clustered in Patan Darbar Square, smack in the middle of the city next to racing cars, houses and stores. Tourists and locals wandered the square or sat on the ancient temple steps chatting or taking a break from school/work.

As I continued to learn that day, Kathmandu has a mix of Hindus and Buddhists. Each temple has some symbol or stylistic design to show it's dedicated to Shiva (the Destroyer) or Vishnu (the bird man) or their respective female partners, Parvati and Lakshmi or Buddha.

You shan't be sentimental when coming to Pashupati because across the river there are stone slabs where recently deceased bodies are cremated. First, the body is ceremoniously washed by the river, which is polluted and floating with trash, and then he/she is carried to the stone slab while friends and family watch the body be covered with straw and set to flames. To me, it was a rather emotional and sad site.

We had lunch overlooking the 43 meter high stupa of Boudhanath. This is an important place of worship for Buddhists in Nepal and also Tibetan refugees. It's a pretty awesome structure.

NEXT STOP: Final trip prep and packing for Everest basecamp hike.