I’m on a Boat, Andamans Edition

North Bay near Port Blair, Andaman Islands. We went looking for new divesites near the capital and were pleasantly surprised to find some nice easy reef diving.

North Bay near Port Blair, Andaman Islands. We went looking for new divesites near the capital and were pleasantly surprised to find some nice easy reef diving.

Castaways on Sir Hugh Rose Island, Andamans.

Castaways on Sir Hugh Rose Island, Andamans.

As you read this, we are cruising in the Indian Ocean around the Andaman Islands on a diving liveaboard. We’re on an enormous boat with a lovely sundeck and a great diving platform. I promise we aren’t suffering too much on this portion of our trip 🙂 We’ll be on the boat until December, diving and assisting with PADI courses.

It’s difficult to describe the Andamans without falling into the usual tropical island trap of ’emerald,’ ‘turquoise,’ and other hyperbolic gemological adjectives that never really suffice. But let me make my own feeble attempt. These islands are tiny, lush spits of land surrounded by cruise-commercial white sand beaches and electric blue waters.

In 2004 the tsunami came through and damaged many of the coral reefs that circle the 500 plus islands. Zev and I keep reminding ourselves that unlike most coral damage we’re used to seeing, this is the result of a natural disaster and not man made destruction (dynamite fishing, boats anchoring on reefs, global warming). The reefs are staging an aggressive recovery; soft and hard coral has begun to regrow and there are some really vibrant patches of reef.

The diving here is good and we are looking forward to visiting the more remote islands where the diving is supposed to be truly spectacular.

A tiny tiny nudibranch or 'sea slug.'

A tiny tiny nudibranch or ‘sea slug.’

Another nudi, great colors.

Another ‘nudi,’ great colors.

One of my favorite sea creatures, the octopus! Found at the Wall dive site, Havelock.

One of my favorite sea creatures, the octopus! Found at the Wall dive site, Havelock.

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One Year Travel-versary

November 5th, 2012 - leaving New York into the unknown!

November 5th, 2012 – leaving New York into the unknown!

November 5th, 2012 we boarded a flight to Beijing with a one way ticket in hand. In that first dingy hostel we meekly explained our half hatched idea to other travelers. I remember one particular couple listened to our story with a mix of pity and scorn as they sipped their green tea over breakfast. Their response amounted ‘mmm, this is your first week, you said?’

After that, we decided to keep our insanity to ourselves and not admit to anyone else that we were total newbs, shaking in our brand spanking new backpacks. Now that our travel flip flops have acquired that special pong of long term travel, and our hair has adopted the nondescript mousey shag of people living outside the conventions of ‘presentability,’ we feel the boldness of our roadie clout and dispense advice like we know what the hell we were talking about. We have dreamed bigger and crazier, and our adventures have taken on a new patina of insanity.

Some of our favorite moments thus far:

November 5th, 2013 - no looking back now!

November 5th, 2013 – no looking back now!

Things are getting messy

Packing up for the first time was a bit chaotic.

Packing up for the first time was a bit chaotic.

I have a disgusting travel habit: I am messy. Like, seriously messy. It’s gross, and anyone who’s seen my ‘Don’t go in there’ door-blocking dance, can attest to the fact that I am appropriately embarrassed about it.

Staying in hotel rooms for a night or two at a time seems to make it worse. All of our worldly possessions are crammed in tiny backpacks, like miniature pressurized treasure chests just waiting to pop.

When I arrive at a hotel room, the first thing I do is sling down all my bags in the darkest corner, and quickly walk away. After which point they seem to explode with the reverberating force of an IED. My overstuffed bathroom bag sends out glittery shrapnel of earrings and bobby pins. Within seconds potions and lotions of varying pedigree, veracity and origin are scattered across the cramped room. After 10 minutes the room looks like a cross between a voodoo snake oil peddler’s den and the bathroom of a squatter with an unsavory addiction to the Bloomingdales beauty counter.

After a day or two in the hotel, dirty laundry begins to seep into crevices, like that dense fluffy mold filling the crannies on a piece of expired Wonderbread. To uproot these scraps of clothing is a futile and repetitive exercise. Entropy is the name of the game. I play it well.

In the best case scenario, we are only staying in the hotel room for a day or two and soon enough it’s time to reassemble the puzzle pieces of my backpack. Each item has a tidy little home in my backpack, secured in a stuff sack or travel pouch. This is the sort of organization that I hope reflects my true travel style.

Unfortunately, in many places we end of staying hunkered down in a room for 4 or 5 days. Nearing the end of a stay like that, the room takes on a gruesome pallor, with a few long forgotten banana peels lingering on the desk and spent water bottles wandering across the floor like tumbleweeds. Housekeeping becomes my mortal enemy. I live in fear of the look on their face, should they get a peep of the place I’ve made my own. When they rap on the door, I open the door just a millimeter and blast them back with ‘nothankyougoaway!,’ slamming the door shut again before they can get a word in.

My dominant fear is that this unattractive habit will follow me home. In ‘real life’ (not backpacker land) I’m a very organized person. I make lists, I fold my laundry while it’s still hot out of the dryer, and I generally don’t live like a slob. But on the road, the rules are different.

Trekking in the Langtang Valley (aka Shout it from the Mountain Top!)

The next part of our trip diverges from our travelogue mold. I’m not big on personal sharing on this blog, not because I don’t love to yap, but because this is a very public forum for a personal experience.

Carefully omitted here are the times we were tethered to the commode with traveler’s diarrhea, or those inevitable couples squabbles that crop up (especially on hot sweaty uncomfortable travel days).

Traveling isn’t always pretty, and most times it’s a dirty, cranky, hungry existence. But we like to share with you those exhilarating moments that make the long bus rides and dingy hotel rooms seem worthwhile. This next installment is equal parts exhilarating and personal. Consider yourself warned. 😀

Rainbow after the first day of trekking through the Langtang Valley.

Rainbow after the first day of trekking through the Langtang Valley.

Sunrise on the first day of the hike.

Sunrise on the second morning of the hike.

View of the river gorge on the second day of our hike up to Kyanjin Gompa.

View of the river gorge on the second day of our hike up to Kyanjin Gompa.

Sea-buckthorn berries, every teahouse along the way makes these little fruits into a deliciously tart juice...eerily reminiscent of Tang.

Sea-buckthorn berries, guesthouses along the way makes these little fruits into a deliciously tart juice…eerily reminiscent of Tang.

Trekkers, guides, porters, yaks, and pack horses all share the narrow rocky trails.

Trekkers, guides, porters, yaks, and pack horses all share the trails.

The gang.

The gang.

A prayer wheel, running on hyrdo power.

A prayer wheel, running on hyrdo power.

After 3 days of trekking, we made it to Kyanjin Gompa. This village is the halfway point and the base from where we made our hike to Tserko Ri.

After 3 days of trekking, we made it to Kyanjin Gompa. This village is the halfway point and the base from where we made our hike to Tserko Ri.

The guesthouse owner in Kyanjin Gompa.

The guesthouse owner in Kyanjin Gompa.

Relaxing at our guesthouse in Kyanjin Gompa.

Relaxing at our guesthouse in Kyanjin Gompa.

At the midway point of our 7-day Langtang trek, we made a summit attempt to Tserko Ri, a nearby peak. From a distance it appeared as a gently sloping hill, prayer flags flapping gently in the breeze. Looks can be deceiving.

The peak of Tserko Ri rises to 4984m or 16,350 ft. We kept hearing accounts of the hike that seemed to belie its docile appearance. Repeated warnings to start early in the morning, not to give up, and that it was totally ‘worth it’ for the view from the summit, came early and often from trekkers on their way back down. Worth what exactly, we were to find out for ourselves. These not-so-subtle hints made us suspect that this friendly looking hill would present us with some challenges.

The owner of the guesthouse where we stayed was a short wind burned Tibetan woman with hair down her back that skimmed the ground when released from its usual braid. She reiterated to us the same early departure warnings, but guesstimated the hike to be 2.5 hours up and 1.5 hours down. Heeding her advice, we struck out at 6am with headlamps lighting the way for the first half hour, freshly boiled eggs warming our pockets.

Just outside the village of Kyanjin Gompa, the trail dissolved into criss-crossing yak paths, each dead ending in a cryptic jumble of decomposing bovine turds. These talismans of the trail signified our increasing desperation, as if the yaks were trying to send us messages we simply couldn’t decode. Half an hour of following these shitty little paths, attempting to decipher the meandering trails, we hit upon the right track leading straight up the ridge, drawing a clear line to the summit.

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After 2 hours ascending along the ridge trail we felt the effects of the thinning atmosphere. Each step required summoning an enormous effort, accompanied by dramatic huffing and puffing , our heads pounding. At this point we could clearly see the prayer flags at the top, but they didn’t seem to be getting any closer.

In the valley below, the clouds began to roll in and cover the dry riverbed. Another word of advice we received concerned the quick moving clouds, which could not only make descent treacherous but also spoil the view from the summit. We were quickly sandwiched between dense fog smothering the valley below and increasingly dense cloud patches circling the summit. We each silently hoped our struggles would pay off for a clear moment at the summit. But that moment seemed increasingly distant with each step. More and more trail revealed itself between our tired shuffling feet and the summit, our progress impossibly slow.

We reassessed our summit time from 2.5 hours to 4.5 and set a firm turnaround time, giving ourselves a safe window of time before we needed to head back down to the village during daylight. Other groups of trekkers whizzed past us with their porters and guides tagging along behind.

As the hours ticked past, we began to accept the possibility of not reaching our goal. The prospect was dispiriting but increasingly looming. With each step, we fought off the pounding headache and shortness of breath from the altitude.  We kept pushing on and on. Finally, after 5.5 hours of walking through the thin air, we made it to the summit! Looking down past the trail we had covered, we all felt such a sense of triumph. The view was breathtaking, and the clouds held off for just a few moments, giving us a glimpse of the glacier capped peaks towering over us on all sides. The camera came out to capture our goofy oxygen-deprived smiles.

At this point Zev got down on one knee and PROPOSED. I was so surprised that I promptly burst out crying. Not a dainty moist eye, but full on sobbing, snot streaming. What can I say? I’m a charming lady. Also, I blame the altitude; it makes you giddy and euphoric, a delightful reminder that your brain is slowly suffocating. The guides saw this commotion and burst into song, belting out a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday’ with all their might. Despite our best attempts to explain what was going on, they continued to wish me a very happy birthday.

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I was SO surprised, seriously!

I was SO surprised!

Relaxing at the summit.

Relaxing at the summit.

So happy.

So happy.

Max, enjoying the view at the top.

Max, enjoying the view at the top.

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Getting down was not as simple as one of the singing guides had explained to us, ‘oh, just walk downhill until you find the trail along the riverside, that will take you back to town.’ We followed many a dead ending yak trail and stumbled our way down a rubble-y mountainside until we finally found a real path again. It was a 4 hour slog back to the village, punctuated by exclamations of ‘oh my god, we’re getting married.’

On the long long walk down.

On the long long walk down.

The serenading guides.

The serenading guides.

Upon our return to camp, we celebrated our engagement with a huge feast of boiled eggs and ‘pizza’ made with chewy Tibetan bread. We crawled into bed early that night with sore legs and happy smiles. It was a fitting way to end an eventful day.

We relished telling our story to the trekkers we met as we descended back to civilization.  There was something fabulously elicit about keeping this secret for the 3 days it took to get back to Kathmandu and an internet connection to share the news with family and friends. On the way down we bought matching ‘Tserko Ri 5000m’ hats knitted out of baby yak wool to commemorate the occasion.

Many thanks to our fabulous trekking partner, Max (hyperlink), who was also our unwitting engagement photographer.

Exploring Kathmandu

Ed. note: reporting live from the Andaman Islands off the coast of India! We’ll be diving here until mid-December. The undersea life is pretty spectacular but the internet connectivity is unimaginably slow.  I’m on a very painful digital detox these days.

Dreaming of the mountains in Nepal.

Dreaming of the mountains in Nepal.

When we started planning our big trip way back in June of 2012, we only had a vague idea where we were going. We planned to start in China and concentrate most of our time in Asia. But in the back of my mind I had a few plans, just one or two bucket list items. One of those was trekking in Nepal.

Nepal held mythic status in my mind. It sounded like a haven for backpackers, a place traveler’s rave about. We heard it was easy on the budget, culturally rich, and accessible for independent travelers. Our kind of place. When our diving plans came together for early October, it looked like we had two weeks open between Sri Lanka and the Andaman Islands – so I quickly booked a flight to Nepal and sold Zev on my crazy scheme.

Max, a friend from DC who is now living in Addis Ababa, joined us for our two week jaunt around Nepal. Traveling with Max was a blast and it was such a delight to reminisce about the good old times in DC.

Our fearless navigator, Max!

Our fearless navigator, Max!

Stepping out of the Kathmandu airport, you can see the distant peaks of snow-covered mountains. It’s a very misleading introduction to the capital of Nepal. Heading into Kathmandu proper, the tranquility of the mountains quickly cedes way to a dusty, chaotic, unbearably noisy city with traffic choked streets, most of which are unpaved and so broken up you fear that your dusty Suzuki Maruti taxi wont make it to the guesthouse. The air of the city is heavy with a haze of dust and smoke. Nothing in Kathmandu is safe from the film that settles onto every surface and gives the city an ancient and otherworldly feel.

We stayed in the uber backpacker-y neighborhood of Thamel. Like almost all of Kathmandu, it has narrow streets and decrepit brick buildings with carved wooden latticework windows, but its storefronts are filled with a greater density of tourist shops than you ever thought possible. Each shop sells a near-identical [monotonous] mix of prayer flags, Buddhist paraphernalia, and knock-off cashmere shawls.

The clogged streets of Kathmandu.

The clogged streets of Kathmandu.

The Dream Garden is a serene oasis in the heart of Thamel.

The Dream Garden is a serene oasis in the heart of freneticThamel.

Rooftop kite flying in Kathmandu.

Rooftop kite flying in Kathmandu.

A tea shop in Thamel.

A tea shop in Thamel.

Cleaning out a shrine at Swayambhunath Temple

Cleaning out a shrine at Swayambhunath Temple

The famous Swayambhunath temple, Kathmandu.

The famous Swayambhunath temple, Kathmandu.

Every building in Kathmandu feels ancient.

This curious dog really cracked me up.

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Selling offerings outside a temple.

Selling offerings outside a temple.

Max met us at the airport and we spent a handful of days exploring Kathmandu and organizing the logistics for our 7-day trek in Langtang. Beyond Tibetan prayer flags, Thamel is a Mecca for name brand outdoor gear of questionable authenticity at prices and quality low enough to classify them as disposable, which proved perfect for our limited budget and total lack of space or interest in adding nylon baggy purple zip-off pants to my wardrobe beyond our trek.  We also stocked up on a metric shit-ton of granola bars, cookies, and a pack of highly prized German gummy bears to tide us over between meals on the trail.

A tailbone breaking 7 hour bus ride later, and we were at the trail head! I must admit that we didn’t know what to expect from this trek. From what we heard, the Langtang route is supposed to be one of the easiest and also most beautiful walks in Nepal. Perhaps we were sorely out of shape (definitely the case), but the walk was very challenging, especially because we carried our own granola bar-laden packs. Each evening along the way we stopped at a little guesthouse, indulged in a solar heated shower and settled down to some card games and a hearty meal of ‘Sherpa stew’, fried pasta, or some other tasty starch concoction.

This is what I was after. A great view of the Himalayas.

This is what I was after. A great view of the Himalayas.

The trail splits around a stupa.

The trail splits around a stupa.

In the Land of Lanka with Zev’s Parents, Part 3

I can barely contain my excitement over the upcoming Nepal story, so I’ll quicly wrap up our time in Sri Lanka. Suffice it to say that it was a beautiful country and an incredible trip. Zev’s parents can attest, I never stopped photographing for the entire 2 weeks. In fact I took so many photos, I needed 3 separate blog posts to give them their due! But this is the last one, the next will be on our time in Nepal…and we have a big surprise to share with you!

When last we left off, we were hunkered down in the chilly and rainy tea plantations that wrap around the hillsides of central Sri Lanka. When our misty tea quaffing sessions came to an end, we headed to the beach to warm up and attempt to escape the rain.

I’ve already mentioned that Zev’s family likes to travel in style, so how does such a stylish family get to the beach? In a helicopter, naturally! To pick us up from the tea plantations, the chopper landed in a local soccer field and what seemed like the entire village came out to witness the commotion. We all felt like total rockstars arriving to catch our ride to the beach.

At the beach we spent a few days strolling the shore and watching the violent monsoon season waves crashing on the beach. To close out our whirlwind tour of Sri Lanka, we drove to Colombo for a fantastic walking tour of the city which took us through Pettah, the main market area of town. If you haven’t caught on from all the market photos on this blog, we love ourselves a good wander through the bizarre. I like to joke that all of Zev’s paths eventually lead to a morning market.

Ladies working hard picking tea outside of Hatton.

Ladies working hard picking tea outside of Hatton.

Tea trails and bubble baths.

Tea trails and bubble baths.

Don as copilot.

Don as copilot.

The coolest ride to the beach, everrrrr!

The coolest ride to the beach, everrrrr!

Relaxing at the beach near Tangalle.

Relaxing at the beach near Tangalle.

Bananas for sale in the market in Tangalle.

Bananas for sale in the market in Tangalle.

A colorful fruit stand in Colombo.

A colorful fruit stand in Colombo.

The wood apple, a tartly earthy fruit. Very unusual and tasty when made into a juice.

The wood apple, a tartly earthy fruit. Very unusual and tasty when made into a juice.

Some of the ubiquitous construction around Colombo

Some of the ubiquitous construction around Colombo

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A local biryani stall, Colombo.

In the Land of Lanka with Zev’s Parents, Part 1

Before we run off for a few days of hiking and internet silence in the Himalyas, I wanted to share some photos from the first few days of our family (minus Ezra) vacation in Sri Lanka. The theme for the first few days was ‘Nature and Ancient Ruins.’ I’m getting too creative, I know…

Before hiking Sigiriya Rock, all smiles.

Before hiking Sigiriya Rock, all smiles.

The gorgeous frescoes at the top of Sigiriya Rock.

The gorgeous cave frescoes at the top of Sigiriya Rock.

Don and Claudia at the top of Sigiriya Rock.

Don and Claudia at the top of Sigiriya Rock.

A herd of elephants gathering at Minneriya to feed on the rich grasses.

A herd of elephants gathering at Minneriya to feed on the rich grasses.

The whole gang, and the elephants too!

The whole gang, and the elephants too!

We hiked ancient rocks to see beautiful cave frescoes, took an elephant safari to see the annual gathering of elephants on the lush lake bed of Minnerya, and saw the stupas and viharas of the ancient Sri Lankan capital of Polonnoruwa.

Beautiful stupas at Polonnoruwa. I love all the details carved in the stone.

Beautiful stupas at Polonnoruwa. I love all the details carved in the stone. The steps are being held up by little figures.

The famous seated buddha at Polonnoruwa.

The famous seated Buddha at Polonnoruwa.

We stayed in the jungles outside of Sigiriya at a fabulous eco-lodge called Vil Uyana. The hotel is set around a pond with gravel trails cutting through the marsh. In our bathroom alone we found frogs, bats, and a koi pond (!). We were even woken up in the morning by a mischievous monkey trying to get into our room.

Touring the north of Sri Lanka, we literally stumbled across wildlife at every turn, spotting creatures as varied as monitor lizards and elephants on the side of the road.

An enormous monitor lizard we encountered on the roadside.

An enormous monitor lizard we encountered on the roadside.

A lily pond near our hotel in Sigiriya.

A lily pond near our hotel in Sigiriya.

One more elephant for good luck. I really couldn't get enough of these guys.

One more elephant for good luck. I really couldn’t get enough of these guys.