Chronicling each step on our journey through South America, Asia and beyond…

Our Road Heads West

Posted on November 19, 2012

Heather here. Having finished up our many visits with friends and family on the East Coast, we now had to start our journey back West. On the road again.

We loaded up the car and entered Denver, Colorado into our GPS. It would be yet another long haul across this great land of ours. We drove through 7 states in 2 days. Next stop: the home of good friends of ours, Courtney, Jon, and their two young daughters, who live in a lovey neighborhood of Denver proper.

Once arrived, we found that Courtney and Jon had set up an amazing little carriage house for us, above their garage in the back of their property. It was perfect! They were the most gracious hosts, and we couldn’t have been more comfortable and happy to spend a few days with them and their two beautiful little girls, Willa and Emerson. They showed us their Denver: great restaurants, cute parks, and their local circle of kind friends. We had such a great time, we were sad to leave, but we still had a few more states to cross before we got back to California. So with a bit of a heavy heart, we said goodbye after an amazing few days.

Our plan was to drive directly across Colorado to get to Utah, the land of many national parks. But we had one very important detour to make along the way. We headed up to a tiny mountain town north of Steamboat Springs to meet the breeder we had committed to adopting a puppy from. Yes, we had to go see our new puppy!

The breed of dog is called an Entlebucher, and it is the smallest of the Swiss mountain dogs. We happened upon this rare breed in a dog magazine a couple years ago, and ever since then, it’s safe to say I’ve been obsessed. We did our research and found this highly-regarded breeder, and lo-and-behold, she had puppies at the perfect timing for us. This trip was just to meet them though, as they were still too young to come home with us. We fell for a little male puppy named Gunnar, and later on when the breeder finalized all adoptions, Gunnar would indeed be ours!

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Needless to say, it was a magical meeting filled with squirming little furballs of just 4 weeks. The breeder and her family live in an area called Clark, Colorado, near Hahn’s Peak. The drive up to Clark was gorgeous – the aspens were bright yellow and the sun was shining through blue skies. Perfect autumn afternoon filled with picturesque vistas. We were well off the beaten track, and we couldn’t help but dream of coming back here with Gunnar some day.

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But we said goodbye to Gunnar and everyone in Clark for now – we wouldn’t see him again for another month when he was ready to come home. Onward we drove through Western Colorado and crossed over to Utah. The landscape started to change from rugged, pine-covered mountains to scrubby, craggy, moon-scaped plateaus and odd-shaped rock formations.

Our first stop was Arches National Park at Moab, Utah. Fred had been to Utah before, but through my virgin eyes, it all seemed surreal. It truly is a unique place, with such geological curiosities to leave even seasoned travelers like us in awe. We did a quick tour of the park, and made sure to save the hike to Delicate Arch for last, to get the loveliest view in the early evening low light.

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Having traveled to other countries, we saw foreign tourists in our country and appreciate others who come to the U.S. to travel. We enjoyed the fact that there were many visitors from all over the world in these remote places of the American West. We felt a sense of camaraderie, having been in their shoes as a foreign tourist until recently.

That night we found the most random, cheap roadside motel to sleep in, called “The Robber’s Roost.” The signage was quirky, but it was quiet. Doors locked tight, we slept like babies. We woke early, grabbed a breakfast sandwich from the equally-quirky cafe down the street where retiree motorcycle bikers were convening, and headed out to Bryce Canyon, not too far west of Arches.

In Bryce we decided to camp in the park campgrounds. We arrived early and set up our tent, only to head out for a good hike. We descended into the canyon and walked the most popular trail, that eventually winds up through an area called Wall Street. Aptly-named, it was by far the most impressive part of the trail, with massive, water-carved walls of rock rising vertically, forming narrow channels below. The signage to be aware of boulders falling was a bit unnerving, but luckily no incidents to report. Truthfully we were inspired during the entire hike, and found every nook and cranny worthy of its status as one of the most interesting national parks in Utah, perhaps even in the U.S. Bryce would make it on my top 3 list of American parks – so far anyways!

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After a good sleep in our tent, we made the short drive to Zion National Park, just an hour or so farther west of Bryce Canyon. Zion was bustling with visitors, which created a touch of traffic as we entered the park through the east entrance. But traffic only made it easier to take in the views of the mountains and formations above. Again, more out-of-this-world geology that boggled our minds.

As we approached the long tunnel that connects one side of the park with the other, our anticipation was building. We popped out the other side, and we were suddenly in yet another awesome canyon. The park has restrictions of vehicle access to some of the more popular parts, so we parked, grabbed our backpacks, and hopped on the shuttle to take us to the trailhead of the Angel’s Landing trail – quite possibly the most popular hike in the park. The hike was strenuous and very vertical, especially for us, having been out of hiking practice since we trekked the Annapurnas in Nepal almost 3 months back. But we made it to the top, er, almost the top. The last little stretch is a hairy, narrow, fatal-looking path that connects two major chunks of rock via a skinny little strip of stone. Fred had crossed this strip on previous visits, but I wasn’t feeling it this time. We made it to the most important section and that was good enough for me!

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The original plan was to camp in Zion, but we were craving something more…plush. So we found a really good deal at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas, just a couple hours away, and hit up the vice city for the night. Neither of us like gambling, and we only had the evening, so we checked out some hotels, walked the strip, watched the Bellagio fountain show, and hit the sack. Oh, and we had one of the most decadent meals of our lives at a burger joint in the Aria shopping center – hefty burgers, fries, and milkshakes. Good thing we just went hiking.

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Next morning we would once again be back in California, almost home. Next stop: Palm Springs!

An East Coast Homecoming

Posted on November 11, 2012

Fred here. It’s been almost 13 years since I left my home state of New York to live in San Francisco. California has become my home, and I have an absolute love affair with San Francisco, but New York is where my family and roots are and will always be home in my heart. Because of this history, visiting the east coast is always a special trip for me.

My mother had planned a week-long family vacation on the island of Nantucket (Massachusetts), where she, myself, Heather, my two sisters, their respective partners/families, and Mia the French bulldog would convene to relax and enjoy coastal New England. After our 14-hour drive from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Armonk, New York (mom’s house), we still had a ways to go to get to Nantucket.

We drove up to Groton, Connecticut where my middle sister, her husband, and their daughter live. I was overjoyed to see them, finally! That little peanut, my niece, was 6 months old when we left on our global travels in February; she’s 14 months old now, and what a huge difference! She’s walking, starting to talk, and man is that personality shining through. As close as I am with my family, being abroad during the last several months was really hard on me. But I have to say, it’s amazing how technology can make you feel close to your loved ones even when you’re half-way around the world. Skype was our best friend.

The next day, we woke up at the crack of dawn to make it to Hyannisport, Massachusetts harbor in time to catch the morning ferry to Nantucket. A short two-hour ride and we had arrived! Soon after settling in at our rental cottage we would be at the (tiny) airport to pick up my youngest sister and her boyfriend. The gang was back together.

The small, 48-square-mile island contains some of the most pristine white sand beaches on the eastern seaboard. Quintessential New England homes dot the shoreline while cobblestone streets connect adorable shops and cafes. In the summertime it is a fairly busy destination. But in the middle of September, after the summer vacationers depart, is truly a special time. The atmosphere felt a whole lot sleepier: the perfect place to hang out and catch up with loved ones after months of traveling. Our days consisted of walking to the beach and playing in the sand with my niece, sharing stories about our travels and happenings back home, cooking great meals, fishing, and playing board games.

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Heather and I had been so excited about eating some of our favorite things back home in the U.S. This week we definitely got down to business making hearty home-cooked meals and barbeque. Also, my brother-in-law is quite the fisherman, and his skills graced the dinner table that week with tuna and blue fish – it was so fresh that we were compelled to eat a lot of that tuna raw! New England clam chowder was also a must and we had some of the best at Brotherhood of Thieves restaurant.

And like any vacation, it was soon coming to a close. We spent one last night at one of the local hotspots, Cisco Brewery, sipping tasty brew and listening to local musicians play folk standards. We felt blessed to have these experiences together.

Exactly one week after arriving on Nantucket, we boarded the ferry to head back to the mainland and New York bound, back to my hometown. We of course had to visit other family and friends living in the area. A stop in New Haven to see an old friend, a stop in Bronxville to see aunts, uncles and cousins, and of course a stop in Scarsdale to hang out with Grandma. We almost felt like we were campaigning for elected office, we made so many stops! One of our favorite detours was visiting the Fordham section of the Bronx where my Grandparents settled after immigrating from Italy in the 1930’s. We had lunch at Mario’s, the quintessential NY Italian restaurant that has been there for more than 75 years, and also popped in to the best Italian grocer in America – Teitel Brothers. It’s like time stands still here, and I love it.

And of course we spent some time in New York City. Heather couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try on a few wedding dresses at a couple New York bridal salons. Mom and the sisters took her around town as I was on baby duty: taking my niece to Central Park and The High Line. Also, a friend of Heather’s from Sweden was coincidentally visiting and we were able to grab a coffee and catch up for a couple hours. Brunches, drinks, lunches, visits – once more we were on the campaign trail of catching up with our East Coast friends, and it felt great to connect again with those we missed.

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The campaign continued as we headed south to Philadelphia to connect with some old college friends. Adam and Deb had just moved back from the west coast and settled in West Philadelphia near The University of Pennsylvania. Cute family neighborhood, perfect for raising their two year old daughter who we hadn’t seen since she was born. Some other friends, Kevin and Abby had also just moved back from the west coast. I mean just moved back. They arrived the day before we did in their RV after driving cross country. Then there was Jim and Steven who were housemates of mine back in school. Hadn’t seen them in years but we didn’t miss a beat.

While in Philadelphia, we also had to dive in to some US history, visiting Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell – places Heather and I had never been. After ingraining ourselves in other countries’ histories we felt it only right to reconnect with the birth of our nation.

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The next day it was off to Washington DC. But on the way we had to make a pitstop at the University of Delaware, the place I called home from 1995 to 1999.

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My memories from this place are some of the best of my life. Driving by places where I had lived with my friends brought me right back to those years. Some things looked exactly the same. Other things couldn’t have looked more different. Main St. which used to be all local businesses now had a Starbucks and a Chipotle. The Stone Balloon, a bar that had been there for generations was turned in to condos and a wine bar. A wine bar? This is Delaware people. Get it together. But alas a lot of the old favorites remained – including Margharitas pizza where we grabbed a slice, and Capriati’s, where I grabbed a “Bobbie”, one of the most stellar sandwiches on earth consisting of fresh turkey, cranberry sauce and stuffing. Thanksgiving on a roll. After gorging ourselves we continued down I-95 to DC.

In DC we met up with another college friend, Gil and his wife, Elaine. They got married this summer when we were in Laos. Gil was actually one of the original inspirations for our international trip. 10 years earlier he had done something similar, albeit more ambitious than ours. He was on the road for 15 months. Pretty sure H and I wouldn’t have lasted that long. Regardless we had an amazing time exploring DC with them.

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Heather also has a bit of a girl crush on Elaine. She may have the greatest style we’ve ever seen. A career in interior design isn’t far fetched. We may have to get her to SF to do our home.

Finally we had one last stop on the campaign trail – this one in the Northern Virginia suburbs of DC where yet another old college friend, Scott, lived with his family. Scott settled in to adulthood much earlier than most of my friends, getting married almost ten years ago to his college sweetheart. He’s got the All-American family with his wife, son and daughter. However he was quick to tell me how much he hates my guts for having taken this amazing trip. It’s all in good fun, I suppose. It was a great way spending our last night back east.

The next morning, it was back on the road heading west. Next stop Denver, Colorado.

The Great American Road Trip Begins

Posted on October 11, 2012

Heather here. Aaaannnddd we’re back. Back in the Western Hemisphere. Back in the good ol’ U.S. of A. We’ve come home for good from our marathon of international travels engaged to be married and walking on clouds. We keep reflecting on our experiences in all the different countries we have been to, and how our minds and hearts have been opened and changed. And the favorite question from our loved ones is: “what was your favorite place?” What a loaded question!

Travel has also renewed our profound appreciation and love for our home and lives in San Francisco. It is a beautiful thing to be grateful. But we would only be home in San Francisco for a short stop again, as we decided to make the most of our time by seeing our own country by car, driving from coast to coast. Twice. It would turn out to be the best way to see family and to sneak in a few more weeks of leisure. Plus, what’s more American than the “Great American Road Trip” anyways?

Upon arrival from the Maldives in the San Francisco airport, we had about 36 hours to re-adjust to life as we used to know it and get our lives packed up in our car. We were lucky to get to see a few close friends, albeit briefly, grab a burrito (Fred’s weakness), do some laundry, and sleep in our own bed for two short nights before hitting the highway toward Jackson Hole, Wyoming.

Since jet-lag was a factor, we were able to get very early starts over the two days it took us to reach the Jackson area, the gateway to the Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Parks.

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Neither of us had been before, so we were quite excited to glimpse these majestic mountains and natural phenomena. Jackson Hole was adorably rustic, like a modern wild west town made for yuppies and cowboys alike.

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At the Grand Tetons National Park, we made comparisons of the jagged peaks to the spires we saw in Patagonia. With the scorched lands erupting into many wildfires this year in the western U.S., the air had a smokey haze to it, though. We were hopeful it was nothing too close or dangerous to the area.

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And then we hit Yellowstone National Park (all in the same day I might add – we were on a tight schedule). We spent half a day quickly exploring the main sights: Old Faithful, the bubbling mud pits and cauldrons, and the canyon.

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A particularly entertaining sight was the huge herd of bison that settled in right next to the road in a wide expanse of meadow. I’m talking hundreds of giant, lumbering bison that do not like to move for anything or anyone, and take full ownership of the entire area, including the roads. Cars in both directions came to a complete halt. So imagine, here we were in a traffic jam that could rival any jam in a big city, but instead it was in the middle of nowhere. Everyone took it as an opportunity to take photos, so it was no big deal, even if driving side-by-side to a half-ton beast that could easily destroy your wimpy car is a little unnerving. Ironically, this would be our only traffic jam on our entire drive from San Francisco to New York. Go figure!

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Such a remarkable stretch of wilderness to behold, we wish we had more time to discover it all, but alas we had to keep forging onward to make it to Upper Michigan to see my family. It had been almost a year since I had been “home” to the Midwest and I was really craving some time with Mom, Sis, Grammas, uncles, aunts, cousins and more. We reached Ironwood, Michigan late at night, driving almost 17 straight hours from a town outside of Yellowstone where we stayed the night prior. Fred is a champ marathon driver I’ve learned! Gramma was asleep, so we tiptoed in and went right to bed, exhausted.

Ironwood is tiny, about 6000 people, and it is an old mining community that flourished in the middle of the 20th century but doesn’t have active mines anymore. Most people are retired, as the young folks now tend to move away after high school. It truly is Americana of the north-woods variety – kitschy storefront signs, neighbors helping neighbors, ladies meeting up at the coffee shops to gossip, snow and water skiing, football and hunting season.

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Fred loves to hear the local accent (think Fargo the movie).

We spent the next couple of days hanging with Gramma, aunts, and uncles. Our days were filled with a doing a jigsaw puzzle in the garage, a sauna session in the woods, saying hi to Hiawatha (the tallest Indian in America!), a couple tours around town, a day-trip to the Porcupine Mountains, and loads of Gramma’s yummy home-cooking. One compulsory visit is to Lake Superior, the largest and deepest of the Great Lakes, which is only a few minutes drive away. It’s so massive it should be a sea, not a lake!

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And no trip to Ironwood is complete without a meal at the Liberty Bell Chalet, a local hot-spot that is ingrained in my psyche as as a place for comfort food with family. The pizza and caesar salad are the only things I eat there, and for me it is nostalgic and homey, and my tradition. Ironwood just feels like a safe place for me; it’s where my dad took me for all holidays and breaks as a kid, and where he is buried now. It is one very solid constant in my life. I have roots there.

Soon enough it was time to head south to Wisconsin, my home state by birth. Mom, Sis, my other Gramma, and more aunts and cousins live in a mid-size midwestern town, Appleton, home to a minor league baseball team, a sizable paper industry, and cheese. Lots of cheese. Fred and I had good quality time with family here as well, and it was especially fun to share some wedding planning with my mother and sister, including my first dress shopping experience :).

Oh, and did I mention my sister Courtney had just adopted a chocolate lab/pit bull mix puppy? O.M.G.! It was even more special to come back to Wisconsin with a little bundle of puppy love added to the family. His name is Jack, and he is amazing.

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The sucker that I am for puppies, we spent a fair amount of time at my sister’s place, so Mom made her famous spaghetti there, all of us together in Courtney’s new apartment for the first time.

And just like that we said our goodbyes once again to head out to Madison, Wisconsin, the state capital, but more importantly, home to the University of Wisconsin – Madison, my alma mater. I hadn’t set foot in Madison since I graduated in 2005, and Fred and I both wanted to visit. So we made plans to do a quick day-tour and meet up with a couple of cousins of mine attending UW at the moment. Campus was pretty much as I remembered it, save for a few renovations and additions. Lucky for us, my favorite college food joint, Ian’s Pizza, was still there, so we got ridiculous macaroni and cheese pizza and buffalo chicken pizza before topping off the day on Lake Mendota. It was a gorgeous day to sit on the terrace by the lake at the back of the Memorial Union and just soak it up. Oh memories!

That night we headed to Milwaukee, just an hour away, to stay the night with a dear, old friend of mine I know from growing up. She lived across the street and even our parents were best buds. Although we only see each other occasionally, when we do it is like picking up where we left off the last time, in a totally natural way. She’s one of those forever-friends, with a gut-wrenching sense of humor to boot. She and her husband showed us around town, and we had a fabulous sushi dinner on the river. Milwaukee has come a long way from its industrial past, and even Fred was utterly impressed.

Early the next morning we set off for another epic day of driving; our final destination would be Armonk, New York, Fred’s mother’s house. Yes, that’s right, we drove from Wisconsin to New York in one fell-swoop. But what made this even more ridiculous is that we carved out time to stop in Chicago along the way. There is a bridal shop in Chicago that I was dying to check out, plus one of my cousins lives a few blocks from it, so it seemed like the obvious choice to make an appointment for myself and my cousin to join. Us girls had a fabulous time while Fred wandered around the river and towering skyscrapers.

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Saying farewell to the Midwest, we booked it for Armonk, arriving around 3am. We flopped down and slept soundly for hours. Phase one of West-to-East was officially complete and only took us about 2 weeks. That said, it was a very quick and clipped 2 weeks, so we were looking forward to having a full week ahead of staying put in the East with Fred’s family. The Road Trip continues…

A Maldivian Surprise

Posted on September 22, 2012

Fred here. When Heather and I started planning this trip, we knew we wanted to finish it off in a beautiful, relaxing environment. After two months of Nepal and India we knew we’d need to decompress. We tossed around lots of tropical beach locations – Bali, Fiji, etc. But as we began doing some research, one place really grabbed our attention. So it was decided – The Maldives. If you look at a map of the world, you pretty much can’t get any farther away from where our home is. But given its proximity to southern India where we would travel from, it couldn’t have been more convenient.

The Maldives is a country comprised of roughly 1,200 small islands southwest of the southern tip of India. These islands are ultimately dots of coral and sand gently rising out of the most aqua colored water you’ve ever seen. Male, the capital, is one of the most densely populate cities in the world with roughly 80,000 people packed on to an island of 2 square kilometers. But that’s not why we came to the Maldives. We came in search of the quiet island life. And we found it.

We arrived at Male Airport after a 90-minute flight from Trivandrum, India. Sixty minutes into the flight this unique chain of atolls started to come into view.

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Neither Heather nor I had ever seen anything like it. I quickly reached for my camera and started shooting like mad. Seemingly every shade of blue and green that Mother Nature had at her disposal was in view. After arriving, we were met by our local travel agent, Tho. He runs a small travel agency in the Maldives called Elysian Maldives. He took care of us to say the least. As we walked out of the airport, we were in awe of the surroundings. Across the street from the terminal was the airport harbor.

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Even the harbor had this electric blue water! The airport actually sits on its own island. To get anywhere, including Male itself, you have to get on a boat (or a seaplane). We boarded a speed boat for a 30-minute ride to our island – Hudhuranfushi.

Arriving at Hudhuranfushi we knew we made the right choice. Our home for the next week would be this great bungalow situated 10 meters from the water. Palm trees, banyan trees, and crystal-clear water surrounded us.

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We did a quick loop of the island which doesn’t take much time – about 30 minutes and you’ve seen it all. On one side of the island you’ve got a pretty impressive surf break full of surfers from all over the globe – Australia, Brazil, Spain, etc.

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The remainder of the island was pretty much beach. Sweet, magical beach with amazing coral reef pockets and a colorful array of marine life. We set up shop on the eastern end of the island and didn’t leave it for the 8 days we were there, except for meals, happy hour, and sleep. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect setting to end 6.5 months of globetrotting.

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And that perfect setting was about to be the scene of one of the most memorable moments of both of our lives. As we watched the sun dip below the horizon on our final night, I asked Heather to marry me! That’s right! It was the surprise of a lifetime for Heather as she screamed with excitement, while at the same time asking me if I was serious. Of course I was serious! If this woman could put up with me for 24 hours a day non-stop for 201 straight days, I knew I needed to get a ring on that finger. It was an epic moment.

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You may be asking yourself, “Did he really travel around the world with an engagement ring in his backpack for that entire time?” I’ll answer that question with a “hell no!” Not a chance. I knew I wanted to propose to Heather soon but I had not planned to do it abroad. But a couple of weeks prior when we were in Fort Kochi, Heather walked into a jewelry shop. She clearly loved most of what the shopkeeper was selling, so much so that she bought 5 different rings from this guy. But there was one ring that really stood out for her. It was a silver and gold ring with a beautiful sapphire in it. Unfortunately for Heather it was more money than she was willing to part with at that moment.

So as she sadly declined the final offer from the shopkeeper, a lightbulb went off in my head. Buy this ring as a stand-in engagement ring and propose to her before we fly back to the US. I’ll get her a proper engagement ring when we get home. But how could I do this without Heather knowing? Then as if there was some kind of divine intervention, Heather realized there was a dog outside the shop with her litter of puppies that needed photographing (Heather LOVES puppies). She wandered outside, and that was my window to do this. Within 60 seconds I told the guy how much I would give him for the ring, gave him my credit card, signed the receipt, got my card back, put the ring in a ring box and tossed it in my pocket, just a few seconds before she walked back into the shop. Now it was just a matter of hiding it from her for the next two weeks until the last night of our trip. As I said, she was surprised beyond words. She never saw it coming.

The rest of the night we marveled at all of the amazing moments we’d had since we started this adventure back in February. Now we’d be going home engaged, about to embark on another amazing adventure – planning a wedding. We couldn’t be more excited for what’s ahead. But our travels were not done yet. The Great American Roadtrip awaited us back home. More to come!

Last Stop in India: Kerala

Posted on September 15, 2012

Heather here. After three weeks of travel throughout northern India and Mumbai, we were ready to take it down a notch in the southern Indian state of Kerala. Kerala is renowned for its laid back style, and for us, that sounded like a perfect way to spend our last week in this otherwise frenetic, energetic country.

We took a quick flight to Kochi, a convenient starting point to reach some of the iconic areas of the smallish state of Kerala. Homestays are quite common in these parts, and ours, located in Fort Kochi, had an amazing local feast for us both for dinner and breakfast. We immediately noticed how different the food was here. It’s a very tropical area with lush greenery and coconut trees everywhere. Coconut was reflected in the cuisine, and the spices were aromatic and intoxicating. Being along the main spice trade, everything was fresh and local, from cardamom to anise to curry leaves to mustard seed. And being coastal, fresh fish and seafood were always available. We also noticed beef on the menu, a direct result of a large Christian population. The dishes were not as creamy and heavy as many of the dishes we had in the north; frankly we couldn’t get enough of the food in the south!

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Though the culture is more relaxed in Kerala, we still set a relatively fast pace to see the area. We had one day in Fort Kochi, 2 days in Munnar, a day in Thekkady, 2 days in Alleppey, and a day in Kovalam. This final week in India was going to be productive! And we could tell from the outset that this part of the country was going to be one of our favorites.

We spent our day in Fort Kochi just wandering about town seeing the sights at our own leisure. We bought freshly-caught fish and prawns from the local fishermen and had it grilled to our liking for lunch. We watched a dance show called Kathakali, which was occasionally hysterical with the many theatrical faces the dancers make, not to mention extremely loud! I found an amazing souvenir shop that had a stash of beautiful jewelry and vintage rings that I couldn’t help but buy. I’m a sucker for that kind of stuff. Luckily I didn’t feel bad negotiating down the price though. That’s a must in India.

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Our initial thought was to take the trains around Kerala, but we found that most of them were booked, so we opted to hire a car and driver again, like we did through Rajasthan. Our first day on the road heading to Munnar was a soggy one. Sheets of rain came down and some of the roads started to flood. The drive took a while longer than usual due to the conditions, as well as a few detours due to washed out roads. We just wanted to get there safely, and we asked our driver to take it easy. He was very obliging.

The homestay we were linked up with in Munnar was amazing. Probably one of the best accommodation experiences we had in India! It was called River Rock, and is a guest room built in a separate, private building on a huge boulder, overlooking the mountains and river behind the main house the family lives in. It was gorgeous.

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And the family only takes one pair of guests at a time so they can spend quality time. They prepared our dinners and breakfasts from scratch the traditional way, and ate with us, explaining what everything was, how life in Kerala is, and just being as generous and gracious of hosts as we could have possibly asked for. They reminded us of Fred’s Italian grandmother, in the way they took such care in preparing the meals and insisting we keep eating more.

The countryside around Munnar was stunning. It is a hill station town in the midst of acres and acres of tea plantations. Never having seen tea plantations, we were entirely awed by the site of the rolling hills covered by cropped tea trees. It was almost surreal in its beauty. And visiting the tea museum was interesting, learning how the tea is turned from leaf to powder – not to mention the price of admission included one of the best cups of tea we had, rivaling “India’s best chai” in Jaisalmer.

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The only downside of the day was how cold and rainy it was. We weren’t prepared for the cold. Thinking an Ayurvedic massage (world-famous massage practice originating in Kerala) and steam would fix us up and help my fledgling cold subside, we signed up for an hour and a half treatment at a “locals place” recommended by our driver. Bad idea. The rooms were so cold, that we were shivering the entire time and just couldn’t relax. And cleanliness left a lot to be desired. I ended up with a worse cold after all. That would be our last Ayurvedic treatment unfortunately.

Between Munnar and Alleppey, we made a one-night stop in Thekkady, close to some beautiful parkland and wildlife refuges. We sadly learned that the wildlife viewing boat trips were fully booked so we missed that part of the town. But since I was feeling under the weather, we took it easy and just did a spice garden visit where a guide showed us all the local spice plants in their original, plant form. Our homestay in this town was adjacent to a forested area, just a stone’s throw from the Tamil Nadu border. Cheeky monkeys raided the jackfruit trees in the yard and left us with hours of entertainment.

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Next stop: Alleppey. This is “the” place to be in Kerala, and possibly the main reason for such tourism, foreign and domestic, in the south. Alleppey is the epicenter of the Kerala backwaters, an expansive network of tropical water canals. Rice farmers and fishermen make their homes here, but the rice barges-turned-sightseeing-boats have taken over in the main areas. We didn’t want to miss out, so we rented a boat, equipped with a bedroom, a lounge area, a kitchen, a captain, and a chef. It was a similar concept to our Halong Bay excursion in Vietnam. This was all about relaxing and enjoying the scenery. We only regretted not planning for more time.

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Suddenly our week in Kerala, and month in India, was almost over. How did that happen so fast? We were scheduled to fly out of Trivandrum, so we opted to spend our last night on the subcontinent in Kovalum, a quaint (but touristy) beach town close to the airport.

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India was a challenge at times, and absolutely awe-inspiring at others. Ups and downs, highs and lows. For me, India was about the history and the humanity, with such rich cultural heritage, and such gut-wrenching human conditions to be exposed to. We were often perplexed, outraged, saddened, exhausted, but on the other side we were humbled, amazed, appreciative, and warmed by the many beautiful and kind aspects as well. India doesn’t put on a veneer for visitors; she shows herself as she is. Take it or leave it. Truthfully, there were moments when we didn’t think we could handle the stress and sensory overload, but as I watched Keralan life pass by from the car on the final trip to the airport, I felt a surprising kinship with India, a sadness to say goodbye.

Fred and I felt closer than ever in our relationship, having now been on the road together experiencing the diversity of the world for six and a half months. I suppose this could be like an intensive test of our compatibility! We felt like we had passed the test with flying colors. But truth be told we were starting to feel a little worn out – travel fatigue, if you will. Good news is, we had a whole week of rest and relaxation in the Maldives coming up! One final splurge.

From Classics to Extremes in Mumbai

Posted on September 1, 2012

Heather here. Heading to Mumbai, India’s financial megacity, we had visions of classic British colonial India romance as well as modern-day extremes of poverty, wealth, and religious fervor. These varying identities of the metropolis formerly known as Bombay certainly presented themselves to us, like a pulsing being with multiple personality syndrome. Which version of Mumbai we’d encounter each day was a mystery until we went out to meet it head-on. And for added measure, she often surfaced a few faces at one time.

Since we planted ourselves in the historic neighborhood of Colaba, we typically experienced the classic British-Victorian-colonial version of Mumbai upon first glance. Walking through Colaba and on to Fort, past the gateway of India, the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Victoria Train Station (now renamed the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus), several museums and university buildings, we got a sense of the exotic, leafy image the British built of “their” India of the early 20th Century. The seaside location, with the harbor running the length of much of these areas added to the romance. Marine Drive, Chowpatty Beach. The romance of it was so thick we could practically see the Bollywood film lovers in constant embrace here long after the final wrap.

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And where else is there a mosque built far out in tidal waters so that the devoted may only reach it during low tide? High tide comes and the path is submerged, closing access to worshipers until the sea ebbs once more.

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Throw in thousands of zooming Ambassador taxi cars and this classic personality reached icon status.

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Now, as if that weren’t enough, we had a taste (literally) of the cosmopolitan cuisine one can find in Mumbai. After all, Mumbai has everything, and people, from everywhere influencing its commerce – culinary industry included. A deli on par with any up-market deli in New York or London? Check. A bakery with a French-Belgian-based menu? Yep. A chain of coffee shops rivaling Starbucks? You bet. Frankly, we were delighted to depart from traditional Indian fare and have a taste of the familiar. Several months away from home will do that to anyone. But we were on pace to blow our budget, as Mumbai is notoriously expensive for dazzled visitors. So, we had our turkey sandwich, caprese tartine, and chocolate lava cake, then sought out more local food at a more local price. And wouldn’t you know, one block from our hotel was a South-Indian vegetarian restaurant with 3-foot long paper masala dosas to make you lose your mind. More than enough food to feed the two of us for around $1.50 each. Bingo.

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One place I insisted upon checking out was Leopold’s – a classic Mumbai establishment. This bar/restaurant opened in the 1870’s and has been catering to throngs of locals and tourists ever since. I finished reading the book Shantaram a few months back. Those of you familiar with the book should know Leopold’s. It was Lin’s group’s hangout in the novel. Great place for drinks, people watching, and dreaming of Mumbai noir stories of yore.

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And what would be a stop in a new city be without a new festival? The day we arrived was Lord Shiva’s birthday, and Mumbaikers celebrated with block party-like gatherings where teams of boys competed to build human towers as high as they could, stacking feet-on-shoulders on top of each other. The ultimate goals was to knock down a matka, what I would call an Indian piñata, filled with goodies and fruit. We giddily watched the neighborhood teams near our hotel do their best, holding our breath when they came tumbling down into the arms of their safety-net neighbors surrounding the boy towers.

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But as classic as Mumbai is, it also harbors aggressively extreme sides as well. Polar opposite poverty and wealth abound. It is the center of India’s mass hustle to launch the economy into the developed world, and everyone up and down the socio-economic scale is working every angle (whether legal or under the table) to increase their status and fill their pockets. Urbanization has brought millions of impoverished rural folks in search of a better life. And the result of this, over the decades, has been a swelling of temporary settlements, known to all as slums. And there is a striking paradox in this city where slums and luxury high-rises stand side-by-side; geographic separation of the inhabitants’ wildly different lives seems paper-thin. And it only exacerbates the extremes when one can visibly compare the spectrum in one view.

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We hired a driver to give us a ride around town, and this was most eye-opening for us. He walked us through a small section of a slum housing hundreds of thousands of people adjacent to a military compound and a row of Billionaires’ mansions (ever hear of the Tata family?). The section we visited was an outdoor laundry facility called Dobi Ghat.

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Passing by the stench of the public toilets, our olfactory senses were next assaulted with the warm soapy smell of washing machines and starchy steam. Workers were laboriously managing huge washing drums of linens, and others were tending to the hand-washing in outdoor concrete bins. Sheets and uniforms hung from lines supported by bamboo poles that we dodged, avoiding knocking them over. Folks either stared at us with what I imagined was curiosity (though self-consciously wondered if it was contempt), or sang out a hello. The kids seemed especially piqued. Some boys played cricket in a field next door.

We saw other slums along the drive, albeit from the car, and we were shocked and saddened by some of the living conditions we saw, particularly when children were involved. The most heartbreaking stories were those who had nothing but a tarp and some pavement to squat on, not even a coveted shack in a slum. We had seen poverty in Rajasthan, but that was more of the rural type. In Mumbai, it is densely-populated poverty en masse. We understand that currently about 50% of the city’s residents live in dire poverty. Overwhelming.

Equally as stark, but on the other side of the extreme were the shiny condos and mansions dotted around town, and in affluent neighborhoods like Malabar Hill, near the Hanging Gardens with their pretty views of the city. Middle and upper class families picnic and stroll these gardens, shop at the French patisserie for treats, send their children to elite private schools, have chauffeurs. Restaurants and stores have guards that don’t let lesser class people in the door.

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And wealthy businessmen build empires in Mumbai, like a billionaire energy and communications tycoon named Mukesh Ambani. As we took a walk through the Hanging Gardens we saw a modern, funky building in the distance that we figured was some new condo high-rise or trendy office space. We learned that it was the single-family residence of Mr. Ambani and family: a 27-floor masterpiece that did awe us at first. Our driver told us there was even a room dedicated to making snow for the kiddos to play in.

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Intrigued, we did a wee bit of Googling to find out more about Sir Ambani. It turns out that his sparkly new palace is valued as the most expensive home on Earth. As a measure of comparison, the most expensive home ever sold in the U.S. was valued around $100 million USD. This Mumbai mansion weighs in at, conservatively, $1 billion USD. One BILLION! We started thinking of Mukesh as a tacky tycoon too caught up in his own wealth to see the millions around him, many literally across the street, suffering every day to find enough to eat. To build a shrine to himself and his fortune as ridiculously mammoth as this is a slap in the face, really. We’re not against a healthy capitalist attitude, nor do we think billionaires are solely responsible for fixing everyone’s problems just because they have money, but we find these displays too extreme.

An alarming scene we chanced upon one day while wandering around Fort neighborhood for us evoked visions of the religious zeal and fervor this city, and country, is often reported as having, especially in the media. After having casual chats with folks along our journeys in India, we saw from the ground level how ages-old frustrations between Hindus and Muslims is still very much alive. Some use extremists to label the folks fighting for their beliefs, and yes, when violence is involved, it is extreme. And who can’t help but think of the November 26 attacks of 2008 that this city endured, including the infamous Taj Mahal Palace Hotel bombing.

The scene that unfolded was mild in comparison to 26/11, but it didn’t turn out to be a peaceful protest either. We were inside the CST station (Victoria Terminus), checking out the interior. We noticed throngs of Muslim men streaming out of a train, shouting and holding signs in protest and waving Pakistani flags. Everyone knows the tension that exists between India and Pakistan, so clearly things were serious. The signs in English read slogans like “stop killing Muslims.” The journalist in me wanted to see what was going to happen, but having read about many protests in India often turning ugly, my gut told me we should leave. Fred wanted to leave without a doubt. We walked out but people were filing out of the station to the road, and many more protesters were arriving on motorcycles and piled in the backs of flatbed trucks, more Pakistani flags waving. Crossing the street, we could see the crowds amassing, and after a flash of monsoon downpours passed, we walked clear away to avoid any trouble. We learned on the news later that there was indeed trouble not long after we left. Two people were killed, many injured, trucks and cars burned, all in protest of the issues transpiring in the Eastern states of India involving Muslims and Hindus. Chaos.

Our few days in Mumbai whirred by, as time does. We felt we had seen many faces of this frenetic city, and surely it has many more to show to those who dig deeper. We had classic moments, we had moments that felt like extreme portrayals of one side of society or another. Yet somehow it all blended together seamlessly, and jarringly at times. As Mumbai forges ahead into the future and upward movement of the Indian economy, we can only wonder what it has in store for the future. For now, for us, it’s time to put that behind us and slow the pace a bit down south in Kerala.

The Last Hurrah-jasthan

Posted on August 14, 2012

Heather here. We said farewell to Jaisalmer with a heavy heart, but also with a refreshed outlook on the remaining days in Rajasthan. Only three more cities were on the itinerary in this north Indian state: Jodhpur, Ranakpur, and Udaipur. As we climbed in the car with Jaisingh, the proverbial show got back on the road.

We had read that while traveling about Rajasthan it is common to see the same travelers time and time again along the way. Sure enough, as we settled in to our Jodhpur haveli hotel, we recognized a few familiar faces from previous stops: the Dutch family with a few small, rowdy children, the two Italian girls, the middle-aged French couple. It seems the car hire companies contract some of the same lodgings. I guess the “classic” Rajasthan route is sometimes the “typical” route. Being first-time India visitors, we admit that having the “tourist” experience versus the “traveler” experience is perhaps just the way it is for a whirlwind trip through a large state in this country, with little time to linger.

Jodhpur was striking at first glance, and would claim a piece of our heart even though we had just one full day to spend here. Entering the city gave us views of the incredible fort looming above town, towering atop a cliff mound. The surrounding neighborhoods reflected their famous dusty blue hues, derived from former Brahmin families marking their properties with their caste’s designated color. The fad took off, and now anyone can paint their home blue, and many do, which gave way to the city’s nickname “The Blue City.”

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We also noted during our stay that the folks about town seemed genuinely friendly and chatty, and we had many reasons to smile through small encounters with shop keepers, fellow pedestrians, and even curious kids on the street near our hotel saying hello.

Naturally, we paid a visit to this famous fort, Mehrangarh Fort, as well as the nearby Jaswant Thada mausoleum. Gorgeous vistas of the city rewarded us. And inside the fort we awed at the towering walls and ramparts, the museum installations, and the grandiosity of it all. This was one of our favorite forts in Rajasthan (second to the Jaisalmer fort).

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Later we excitedly learned that the fort had recently been used to film a scene or two from the new Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, which we definitely will have to see now, and the city itself has been the backdrop to other favorite films of ours like The Darjeeling Limited. Damn, why did we delete The Darjeeling Limited from the iPad? We could only imagine some of the scenes as we shuttled about town.

To end our day in Jodhpur, we were surprised with a visit from our friend Puri who took care of us in Jaisalmer! He was in town on a quick business trip and squeezed in time for a drink with us, and even gave me a recent Bollywood music CD so I can practice my moves to Ek Tha Tiger’s Mashallah.

So the new Bollywood CD would be our soundtrack for the next couple of days driving to Ranakpur and Udaipur. Ranakpur was first, and a bit different from everywhere else. It isn’t so much a town or city to stay in, but more like a hill station atmosphere. We stayed at a modest resort, that was lovely and green, and…had a pool! The plus side is we gave ourselves two nights to have a bit of down time for relaxation in the green, quiet, pleasant area.

But of course there is a temple to see, always a temple or a fort in Rajasthan! In Ranakpur, the main pull is the Jain temple. Exquisitely carved and quite large and airy, we had reason to spend some quality time here. So we slowly made our way through the nooks and crannies, and plunked ourselves down for a while in a little corner to take in the beauty and people watch.

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On the way to Udaipur we had two surprises, both very different in nature, and both sprung from our driver. The first surprise: Jaisingh pulled over in a tiny town and says to us that he is getting out to buy biscuits for the poor children, and asked us if we wanted to give them biscuits. Of course we weren’t going to say no, but we really were unsure what he had planned. We could only go with his flow.

He bought an enormous bulk bag of biscuit packs and handed us the bag and said to split them all in half, essentially doubling the packs to give away. Ok, 10 minutes later we were done with our task, some of the cookies having a hard time staying in their now-unsealed half-packs. A little while up the road, he slows to a stop near three children in the road and tells us to give them biscuits out the window. The kids rush the door and desperately reached in the car for biscuit packs. The youngest was screaming in tears. The older two seemed as though they hadn’t seen food in days and were in strict survival mode, begging for more and more packs. These youngsters were only between the ages of 4 and 8 probably, and already had the heaviest burdens of life emblazoned in their hearts. Jaisingh said this was a very, very poor area, where people have next to nothing. We could see he was right, and that this would be a very difficult and likely heartbreaking ride for us.

We spent the next hour or so distributing half-packs of biscuits to local kids and families along the road. Some folks took them with happy eagerness, some took them with confusion or shy reluctance. Some declined any at all. We wondered if this is a common thing that drivers do with their customers, or if Jaisingh is a uniquely generous man (we had seen him give money to people on the street several times along the way) who took the locals by surprise with us two strange white people handing out food randomly. We reflected how if this happened back home, we would surely have been questioned by the police as to why we were offering all the neighborhood kids open packets of food. Perhaps this is why we felt a bit awkward, unsure if this kind of thing is welcomed or frowned upon here, even though it was our driver’s idea.

Finally, the gravity of it got the best of me and I let a few tears roll down my cheek. The tipping point happened when we offered a small boy a biscuit packet, and he shyly declined, looking at his father (or who we assumed to be his father) walking a few paces ahead. We then asked the dad if he’d like the packet, which he took with a friendly grin and a wobble of the head. He handed the packet to the boy, who beamed a smile. They both looked smiling ear-to-ear at our car as we were driving off. I couldn’t help but feel touched, yet helpless at the same time.

The second surprise before reaching Udaipur was that Jaisingh brought us to a large, well-known fort some ways off the route called Kumbhalgarh. He said it was his gift to us, as it wasn’t on our itinerary. It was massive, and stately stood atop a hill overlooking a vast area of land.

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As we reached Udaipur we realized it was time to say goodbye to Jaisingh; the 2-week car tour of Rajasthan had come to an end. It was a nice and comfortable (and very convenient) way to see the state, but truth be told we were happy to be staying put for a few days and to no longer be sitting in a car so much. We were ready to take it from there and explore on our own. Stay a while. We had a leisurely 4 nights on the books for this beautiful lake town, and we planned to take it easy.

During our days in Udaipur, we really just tried to melt into a relaxed rhythm of life there. We walked around, checked out some markets, spent time at the ghats leading down to Lake Pichola lapping its murky waters at the city’s buildings and walkways that comprise the man-made lakefront. And lo-and-behold, there were cafes! We stumbled upon a German bakery with the most delicious pies. In fact, we had started to crave non-Indian food so we sought out other “continental” cuisine as much as possible. Our favorite was a quaint place called Savage Garden, which had a delectable fresh tagliatelle with pomodoro sauce. Were we still in India?

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Honestly the only real “attraction” we made a point to see was the City Palace. It was indeed beautiful and we enjoyed winding through the corridors and peering into the past lives of the Udaipur royal family. But now having seen palace after palace and fort after fort, it had a familiar feel, save for the trippy mirrored rooms that definitely could have entertained Austin Powers. Actually, the James Bond flick Octopussy was filmed in parts of Udaipur, including the palace. Certainly a place for kings, queens, and secret agents.

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And just like that four days vanished. Time is ticking away a little faster now as we make our way through the last few weeks of our world travels. Off we went to Mumbai – formerly known as Bombay – to set ourselves in yet another rhythm, yet another state.

Rajasthan Rebirth

Posted on August 8, 2012

Heather here. Rajasthan, the land of Rajputs and royalty, here we come. This large, north Indian state is fabled for its forts, palaces, culture, food, and more. It is “classic India.” And we allotted about two weeks to see it. Ambitious? Yes. We’d be on the move quite a bit, which, for better or worse, would get us through a majority of the most popular spots.

We were happy to leave Agra behind. It was just too chaotic and “touristy” in the sense of the mobbing touts and hawkers constantly at our heels, as we wrote in our last post. Glad to have seen the Taj Mahal, but as they say, see it and get the hell out.

Next stop was Jaipur, “the pink city,” and the capital of Rajasthan. Rolling into town, we could tell this would be no sleepy village. Traffic was congested, drivers seemed angry, pedestrians seemed at peril for their lives. We weren’t going to be able to shake that overwhelmed feeling yet, not here. We started to become acutely aware at this point how much we love sidewalks back home.

We had two nights scheduled in order to have a full day exploring the Amber Fort, the City Palace, and other sights. So we settled in our room at a pretty haveli hotel and decided to take it easy for the night, have dinner in the hotel rooftop restaurant, and enjoy the comfortable evening air. There was even a funny (yes, funny) puppet show during dinner that humored us for a bit. Ah, this is nice!

Next morning, that feeling hit me, that feeling every traveler to India dreads. Delhi belly, as some would call it, or more to the point, food poisoning. I was hit, I was going down fast, and I was going to have to ride it out in the hotel room. But I didn’t want Fred to miss out on Jaipur, and I didn’t mind some alone time to work through the symptoms, so off he went with our trusty driver to see town, the Amber Fort, and the palace.

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But the day sick indoors and feeling sorry for myself was one of those last straws that hits when you’re already feeling overwhelmed. I hit a low, I felt homesick, I couldn’t embrace India the way I wanted to. I wanted to throw in the towel and go home for the first time on this 6-month jaunt. My feelings were contagious – Fred was getting to that point too. And this kind of sick meant 2 extra days of recovery, so our next two stops in Mandawa and Bikaner really just felt like going through the motions, following the itinerary because that’s what you do.

Heading into Bikaner, our driver suggested we visit a famous temple on the outskirts called Karni Mata Temple. We saw it in the Lonely Planet too, basically described as a temple dedicated to the worship of holy rats and one of the highlights of town. Intrigued, we decided to go. Like any other sacred temple in these parts, one must remove their shoes before entry. Naturally, we obeyed. It took no time after walking in to see the literal thousands of rats inhabiting the temple. And these weren’t cute, clean rats in cages. These were rough, street rats running free all over the place. Great, rat squalor and bare feet. Fred was blessed by one running over his bare foot. Oh well, people have been coming here for centuries right? Just a few minutes was enough time to get the gist of it. I was becoming more squeamish by the minute. The pigeons (i.e. flying rats) didn’t add to the ambiance. Sometimes you just don’t get it. This was one of those times.

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Though I will say that we visited a really nice, quiet (quiet! Literally zero touts) fort in Bikaner called Junagarh Fort. There was even a film crew there shooting a scene for a new Bollywood hit. We took our time winding through the passageways and courtyards. Being the gateway to the Thar Desert, it also got drier, and thus more comfortable in climate. My spirits and stomach were starting to come back to life, albeit slowly and cautiously. Maybe there was hope for us yet.

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One last stop before heading out was an artists studio, where they specialize in miniature paintings using a brush with the tip consisting of one fine hair from a squirrel tail. The family of artists had been doing this through the generations for centuries, contributing to the fort and havelis (beautiful old mansions) in the area. As a demonstration, the artist painted a tiny elephant on my finger nail.

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The drive out of Bikaner turned to desert scrubland. Camels instead of cows were becoming the majority. We were heading toward a remote place in India, if there really is such a thing, getting ever-closer to the Pakistan border. We were on our way to Jaisalmer, a desert outpost, a destination, as there was no where to connect to from there. Our good friends had been in Jaisalmer just a few months prior and had some killer recommendations for us, especially for a hotel. So instead of the “tour package” hotel, we arranged our own lodging here at Garh Jaisal Hotel, following our friends’ recommendation to the letter, since these ladies were so adamant about it. We also insisted on a tad longer stay of 3 nights here, which we were very pleased about in the end (if not sad to leave so soon).

First of all, I must explain that approaching Jaisalmer is like happening upon an oasis in the middle of nowhere. And, being Rajasthan, there is of course a fort, but this is no ordinary fort. This fort literally looks like a sandcastle, and since it is made of sandstone in the middle of the desert, the sandcastle appearance is only amplified. That said, Garh Jaisal is inside the fort, as this is a living fort, still inhabited in by locals. It is extremely unique in that aspect.

Imagine our delight to be staying inside a sandcastle! When we arrived and settled in to our beautiful room, we were grinning ear-to-ear. And then, the icing on the cake, we discovered the rooftop terrace overlooking the rest of the fort and the town below. The air was fresh and welcomingly dry, perfect temperature to just hang out outdoors, something we hadn’t don’t much of since arriving in India because of the stifling heat and humidity. It felt like seeing color again after living in black and white for a while. We felt anew, reborn.

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Next day we met the gentlemen who run Garh Jaisal, and perhaps the town itself, Mukesh and Puri. These were the guys who our friends had come to know well, and they played an integral part in their good time, as well as our good time in Jaisalmer. They made us feel at home, and really just treated us as old friends. Puri gave us a tour of the fort, stopping to greet locals along the way. These guys clearly knew everyone. And let’s not forget the heart-racing, high-speed autorickshaw ride through the town’s narrow alleys, known as the “Octopussy” ride, taken from the James Bond movie partially filmed here.

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Puri decided to accompany us on our camel excursion, driving us out to a remote, ruined village along the way. Apparently the village was abruptly abandoned one day ages ago when the not-so-well-liked ruler intended to take one of the village girls as a wife. At the village, there was also an old man with two flutes who absolutely entranced us with his playing. Mind you, he played both flutes at the same time. We were experiencing India off the beaten track with a local friend, the best medicine.

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We hopped on, and hung on for dear life, as the camels stood up, and we were then off for a couple hours sunset camel safari. I had read that riding a camel isn’t so comfortable, and this was true. We were satisfied with a ride for just a couple hours, and we enjoyed getting out into the desert, but our legs and bums were glad to ditch the saddle.

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We had dinner with Mukesh, Puri, and another friend, Tanu that night, eating home-cooked food, made by Mukesh’s wife. I had a milder eggplant dish and a chickpea dish (light on the heat for me, with a newly-recovered stomach after all). Fred had the India-spicey mutton that the other guys ate – yes, Fred can hang with the best of ’em when it comes to spice. Both Fred and I can say with confidence that it was the best meal we had in India. Not only was the food top-notch, but the company was as well.

Happily we had one more day in Jaisalmer, so we took it easy, walked around town with Puri, listened to another moving street musician, visited a nice lake terrace, bought a few textile items to send home, saw some amazingly-carved havelis, and just enjoyed being where we were. We had one more delicious dinner with our new friends at their other hotel, Lal Garh. Gosh we could get used to life here.

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On a side note, India is famous for its many festivals, as most know. There are the massive national ones, and then there are the little local ones. Funny enough, 3 of the 4 days we were in Jaisalmer were festival days of some sort. First was the birthday of the fort, nothing major, just some small gathering in a plaza in the fort, which we could see from the hotel rooftop. Second was Mohammed Rafi’s day, commemorating India’s most beloved singer. Another gathering in the same plaza, this time much bigger in size, with local singers giving their best renditions of Rafi’s tunes.

The next day, the day we were leaving, was the third festival called Brother-Sister Day. This is a special day for brothers and sisters to appreciate and pray for each other. What a nice sentiment! We had the chance to have one last chai (legend has it the best chai in India – we would agree with that!) at the main plaza in the fort with Mukesh and Puri. I had two stitched bracelets I bought in Luang Prabang, Laos and decided that these two new friends treated us as family, and should have them for brother-sister day. Our two Indian brothers in Jaisalmer helped us get back on track in India and be happy travelers again. We felt lifted up.

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But, all good things must come to an end, as the saying goes, so we met up with our driver once more and said our final goodbye to our Indian brothers and Jaisalmer. Goodbye for now, at least, as we had more of Rajasthan to see yet.

Enter the Magic and Madness of India

Posted on August 3, 2012

Heather here. Having wrapped up our two weeks in the Nepalese Himalayas, it was time to come down from the mountain villages and start our month of exploration in India. India is one of those countries with a reputation that precedes it, with guide books and fellow travelers alike giving reviews of the highs and the lows, accounts of polar extremes. But nothing we read or heard could have prepared us for the actual experience. This is full-throttle culture shock in the flesh.

We were speechless as we landed in New Delhi; simply the ride from the airport to our hotel gave us our first impression of the magic and madness this country would have in store for us. When a nation of 1.2 billion people, built on lands populated since the earliest of ancient times, of maharajas and warriors, opens its doors to visitors, it is bound to dazzle and confound (and occasionally frustrate) even the most seasoned of travelers.

The energy of the throngs of people hustling about their daily lives was palpable, despite the 115 degree heat. Pushcart drivers manually heaving hefty loads down busy roads, motorbikes cutting through the tiniest of openings, monkeys swiping the rice offerings at the temples, smiths welding metal on the pavement as families walk by only inches away, groups of men gathered for their chai ritual, half-naked street-kids desperately trying to sell whatever they have to the folks stopped in traffic, businessmen reading their morning paper from the comfort of their backseat as their chauffeur drives them to the office. Even a metropolis like Delhi still has a few holy cows rambling freely here and there. Everything was captivating. Nothing was familiar.

Our first order of business was to sort out a plan for the couple of weeks we had given ourselves between Delhi, Agra, and the state of Rajasthan. In the end we negotiated a deal for a car and driver, and skipped the classic train routes. Turns out trains book up well in advance, and being low season the car hire prices are quite good, so it was indeed our best option. We soon thanked ourselves for this as we easily made our way around Delhi and Agra with our driver, Jaisingh. More magic, less madness.

Having only two days in Delhi, we kept to a “classics” schedule: the Red Fort, Ghandi Smriti (Mahatma Ghandi’s ashram where he was shot, turned national museum), Qutb Minar, Humayun’s Tomb, National Museum, Raj Ghat, a modern Hindu temple, India Gate, and the wild walkways of Old Delhi’s Nizamuddin neighborhood. We sadly missed out on a few places like Jama Masjid mosque, the packed markets, and Jantar Mantar, but you can’t win ’em all.

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Delhi is enormous, it sprawls endlessly, but we were pleasantly surprised by how green much of it was with tree-lined boulevards and beautiful, clean Qutb Minar park dominating New Delhi. Truth be told, we didn’t spend a lot of time in Old Delhi, but the new city’s leafy ambiance left a nice impression on us. The Red Fort had some beautiful elements, but for us, it didn’t live up to the hype. And when we entered the Nizamuddin neighborhood, we felt like complete fish out of water; we never did find the Hazrat Nizamuddin Dargah (fabled for beautiful devotional Sufi singers) we were looking for since we left rather hastily. Let’s just say we were pushed beyond our comfort zone. Already we could feel the range of reactions growing.

Soon enough we were packed up in the car and headed to Agra to see the jewel of India, the Taj Mahal, and a couple of other important sights in the Mughal empire’s former capital city. Agra was no tiny village either with more than one million inhabitants. The action from the streets literally spills into the “highway” as we rolled into town, more so than what we saw in Delhi.

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No matter where we stopped, we were instantly mobbed by touts trying to sell everything from rickshaw rides to Bollywood music cd’s. The touts in Agra were one of the most maddening aspects we had encountered. Period. No matter what we said or did, they were unrelenting, even if we said nothing at all. We kept our cool as much as we could, trying to stay polite, but chuckled to ourselves the many ways we would have liked to decline once we got past the invisible line in which a tout will follow you.

But in stark contrast to the madness of Agra’s hawkers, touts, and conmen is the magical splendor of the Taj Mahal itself. Entering through the large gate facing the Taj, we stopped in our tracks and awed at this gorgeous tribute to Shah Jahan’s beloved wife, a world-renowned symbol of love and adoration. The most breathtaking building we have ever seen. The grounds frame the Taj perfectly, with the reflecting pools adding dramatic elements. We spent a couple hours dedicated to admiring this wondrous heritage sight, trying to eternalize it forever in our eyes and hearts, and adequately through the camera lens. We loved seeing the colorful Indian families paying tribute to the Taj Mahal as well, a place for foreigners and nationals alike.

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Given we had the time, we also visited a few of Agra’s other attractions, Akbar’s tomb at Sikandra and Fatehpur Sikri, which we stopped at on the way out of town after the magnificence of the Taj Mahal. Our experience at Fatehpur Sikri made the day a mixed bag of emotions, from elation to near depression. For one, the most voracious touts were here which frustrated us to no end, and for two, we witnessed a senseless, heartbreaking, and frankly infuriating act of heinous animal cruelty on the grounds that we couldn’t quite recover from for the rest of the day. We probably would have enjoyed seeing the pretty grounds a lot more had external factors been less of a dark cloud.

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As we headed out of Agra toward Jaipur, crossing into Rajasthan, the monsoon rain started – thick, heavy droplets of grey rain swelling the earth on impact. We passed by a group of young boys playing in a big puddle that had formed on one lane of the highway. They were rejoicing and jumping every time a car passed and sprayed them with the puddle. They danced and laughed, some of them stark naked. We laughed and smiled at the sight. Oh India. You break us down, and lift us up, all in a matter of hours. I have a feeling it will be a roller-coaster month in this country. Everyone said it would be.

The Annapurna Circuit, Part III – The Final Push

Posted on July 26, 2012

Fred here. Leaving Manang, Heather and I were actually feeling pretty rejuvenated. Good thing, considering we had more than 6,000 feet to ascend over the next 3 days.

Day 8 actually wasn’t a terribly strenuous day. We gained about 2,000 feet of elevation trekking through a beautiful high alpine valley. The vegetation was pretty scrubby, almost tundra-like. We caught our first glance of yaks up on the steep mountain sides.

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Heather made a friend with an adorable little sheep dog along the way.

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And after 4 hours of trekking we were at 13,500 feet in Yak Kharka, the almost-ghost-town we would stay in for the night. No running water up here which equals pit toilets (which was pretty standard at this point) and no showers. The highlight of Yak Kharka you ask? The 2-hour nap we took that afternoon, wearing pretty much every layer we had, and being wrapped in our sleeping bags? That was actually number 2. The real highlight was eating something other than dal baht or pasta. They were able to make us a pizza with…you guessed it, yak cheese. And it was awesome! Bravo to the young chef, who was also the hotel owner / maid / town donkey wrangler. Oh yeah, and no rain again.

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Day 9 was a butt-kicker. Higher and higher up the sides of this steep valley.

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We arrived in Thorung Pedi at 14,570 feet around lunch time feeling pretty out of it. Feeling really lethargic. But Shree wanted us to press on to High Camp so that the next morning we had less to go to reach the pass. We relaxed at Thorung Pedi for a couple hours, took some Tylenol to clear the cobwebs, and then pressed on. About an hour later and 1,500 feet more we were at High Camp, a moonscape-like environment in the clouds at 16,000 feet. We were officially at the highest elevation either of us had ever been in our lives. There were no other trekkers here. Just the couple guys that worked at the lodge. After forcing down a couple bites of food for dinner, it was off to try to sleep. At this altitude, not even Shree or Sushil had any luck sleeping, and they guide these treks all the time. But we were able to get a welcomed 4 hours in, even in the near-freezing temperatures. Down jackets, fleeces, long johns, beanies, and more were worn to bed.

Day 10 was upon us. The day we had been anticipating since we signed up for this trek months back. Pass day! We woke up at 4am and were on the trail by 4:45am. Still dark out but faint light starting to come up. All the clothes we wore to bed (which again was pretty much every article of clothing we brought on the trek) was worn to start the day. Only 1,800 of elevation left to go. Leaving the lodge, we quickly started up a sharp incline. Dense fog and clouds engulfed us. A light mist was falling. The landscape really felt like being on the moon. Because of the weather we were not able to see too much, and that added to the drama. After 2.5 hours of uphill, what seemed like hundreds of prayer flags became visible in the distance. We had made it! 17,769 feet! Thorung La Pass! All feelings of exhaustion were instantly replaced with exuberance and high-fives. Sure we couldn’t see much around us because of the cloud cover, but we had made it. And just for about 5 minutes while we were at the top, the clouds parted just enough to reveal some of the monster peaks that surrounded us. Truly a magical moment.

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After the celebration of reaching the top, it was time to descend, and descend fast. We still had about 4 hours of walking left and it was all straight down hill. By the end of the 4 hours we dropped 6,000 feet.

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Honestly, we’d rather be going uphill. Our knees were crushed by time we arrived in Muktinath, our home for the night. The final stretch in to this town was amazing. The landscape was completely different on this side of the mountains. The region we were now in was called Mustang. It was a total desert mountain landscape. Reminiscent of the desert southwest back in the US. Amazing.

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Before arriving in Muktinath, Shree had teased us with foods that didn’t seem at all possible. “Burgers and apple pie await in Muktinath” he’d say. C’mon, do I look like a fool to you? Well, as it turned out they had some great food at our lodge. Homemade apple pie was served and it was pure magic. After our post-trek nap, we awoke to what was probably the prettiest evening we’d seen during the trek. Parting clouds, setting sun, and tremendous peaks. It was the perfect way to end such a special day.

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Day 11 was to be the last day of trekking. Another 6 hours of downhill led us through remarkable barren landscape. We figured that since we had done all that intense downhill at high elevations, this day would be easy. Honestly, it felt eternal, as I think both of us were now officially ready to complete the trek. We had mustered up all our energy to get to the top. We had no adrenaline left.

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We also found out that there was a chance that this day wouldn’t be our final day of trekking. Allow me to explain… Day 12 we were meant to catch a short flight from the mountain town of Jomsom, the “final” stop on the trek. But the wind had been so intense and the clouds had filled the valley for the last 2 weeks, that flights had only run 1 day over that period of time. What that meant was if we couldn’t fly, we would have to take a jeep ride through the craziest mountain roads to a point on the road where a landslide had cut the road off, get out of the jeep, trek a few hours to where the road becomes passable again, get in another jeep, and hopefully make it the rest of the way down without encountering anymore landslides. All in all it could take anywhere from 1-2 days we were told. That said, we would just have to wait and see if we’d be able to fly that morning of Day 12.

We sat around from 6-9am awaiting word whether flights would run that day or not. It wasn’t looking good. But then shortly after 9am we heard a flight coming in. YES! We walked across the street from our hotel to the tiny airport. Flights flew in from Pokhara, a city just on the other side of the mountains. When they arrived in Jomsom, they took 2 minutes to disembark the arriving passengers, took another 2 minutes to board the departing passengers, turn around, and get the hell out of there before the weather changed. The airport was basically opened for one hour that day, and we were on the last flight out. As it happened, no flights ran for the next few days.

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I should add that there was a fair bit of anxiety for this flight. Jomsom Airport is known for being one of the most dangerous airfields in the world. It is surrounded by steep peaks on all sides. Heather was a nervous wreck the entire 23 minutes that we were in the air; every time Shree or I pointed out a peak poking out of the clouds at eye-level, she just buried her face in her hands and muttered “oh no.” It was a tiny plane, the unpressurized kind where you can see right through the cockpit and out the windshield. But honestly it was a very smooth flight with incredible scenery. We were thrilled as we touched down in Pokhara. We finally felt like we could celebrate. It was over! The next few days were spent doing close to nothing in this beautiful lake town before heading back to Kathmandu. It helped that it was rather rainy, encouraging us even more to cozy up indoors.

What an amazing couple of weeks. Without a doubt the toughest physical challenge either of us had ever faced, not to mention one of the more trying mental ones as well. Eleven days of walking, 150 kilometers walked, 15,000 feet of elevation gain, crossing the highest trekking pass in the world. Mission accomplished!