Cusco sits at 3400 meters in the sky. We arrived from sea level at Buenos Aires and it didn’t take long for our headaches to follow. We hydrated and ate with only mild improvement. The local remedy of coca leaves and tea provided no relief. The city itself reminded us of Kathamandu. There are plenty of outdoor gear shops and street hawkers. However, Cusco appears much cleaner with proper sanitation and visible police. The main square – Plaza de Las Armas -displays Colonial era buildings and churches built from stones stolen from Incan ruins.  We treated ourselves to a stay at the JW Marriott which had an archeological site and museum in the basement.  Much like Turkey and Israel, you can’t start digging in Cusco without stumbling upon a historical relic. The service and breakfast were head and shoulders above what we’d become accustomed to.  We spent a day and a half wandering the streets and acclimatizing. We took a liking to the Peruvian fare at the charming Restaurant Sumaqcha.  The waiter/owner sprinted up and down the stairs to give us the very best service possible. Delicious organic plates are served at Greens Organic. I’m sorry to report that Alpaca is quite tasty. However, I’m happy to report we escaped without eating the traditional Cuy (Guinea pig).

We met Saul, owner of SAM Travel Peru and Yarek, our guide to discuss trip details. On the road for more than six months now and hiking in four continents we were prepared for anything the Andes could dish us . . . If only that darn headache would go away. Nonetheless, we set out early the next morning. We drove winding roads to reach the Sacred Valley. It was almost harvest time and the corn was tall. There are many types of corn in Peru. Different flavors and textures for different meals and dishes. We stopped at the local market in Calca, and Yarek gave us a tour of the local produce for sale and we purchased some snacks for our journey. In addition, we were encouraged to purchase gifts to distribute along our journey. These included anything from toys for the children to coca leaves for the adults.

Just outside of town the road significantly improved. It was fresh asphalt snaking through the canyons. Our driver explained it’s a wonderful new road, but a better road means people drive faster. Too fast indeed.  There were occasionally small boulders along the road, but nothing else that resembled a guardrail.  Everytime we ran into a shepherd and their flock our driver complained of, “Traffic.” Another hour or so on the serpentine roadway and we arrived at the town of Lares. Oddly, we began our trek with a stop at the hot baths. After a good soak we enjoyed our first prepared meal in the shade. Our four course set meal consisted of cheesy avocado salad, potato soup with garlic bread, sautéed fish with veggies, and dulce de leche crepes for dessert.  This was already not the trek we were expecting.

Instead of a much needed nap we began scaling the valley above. While we were catching our breath a dozen children passed us on their walk home from school.  Some of the kids travel more than an hour each way.  Kids are tough here.  Our horseman led our horse train and supplies with his 8-year-old daughter, Rosemary, in tow and outpaced us quickly each day.  We approached a house with a makeshift flagpole flying a red plastic bag at its apex. Yarek explained that this meant they were serving chicha, a fermented corn slurry. It didn’t taste awful, but I doubt production methods have improved significantly over the years. Originally, chicha was made from a collection of chewed maize expectorant.

We hiked up to 12,500 feet before arriving at our campsite.  It was a simple leveled pasture with open-air toilet stalls covered with charming linoleum.  An empty community room served as our dining room.  Our cook, Yoel, continued endearing himself too us with hot tea and popcorn appetizers before another four course meal.  Unfortunately, two nights in Cusco was obviously not enough for us to acclimate to the altitude and – despite power hydrating and force feeding our diminished appetites – our headaches only grew worse.  We acquiesced to taking acetazolamide tabs for mountain sickness.

In the morning we woke to “bed-tea” as a wake-up call.  After a pancake breakfast we hit the road. Spanish was the common denominator among us, however, Quechua is the “people’s language” of the Andes.  It’s pronunciation is difficult and despite only using three vowels words are surprisingly difficult to remember.  With a small armamentarium of vocabulary we walked from village to village engaging with many locals along the way.

First, we visited (broke into) a local church and found it full of wheat drying after the harvest.  Next, we visited an older man in his home.  A stately 82-year-old with his 60 year-old lady friend welcomed us with open arms to sit and chat.  We gave them coca leaves and they gave us insight into their lives.  His home was a single room with stacked stone walls and thatched roof.  There were a dozen guinea pigs running around under the bed and a fire dying out in the indoor stove without chimney. It’s obvious that life is not easy for these subsistence farmers and living 82 years is almost miraculous.

Throughout the day we covered two passes as high as 15,000 feet and camped at a beautiful lake at 12,500 feet.  Along the way we passed gorgeous lakes, small villages, and sacred geometry.  The women would display handicrafts, although some obviously not made in their homes. The children were shy, but not too shy.  They would hurry ahead of us and “run into us” along the trail to receive gifts. We handed out notebooks, pens, and toothbrushes to any child we saw along the way.

The next morning we visited a family on our way down the valley.  We taught the children the importance of brushing their teeth and washing their hands after using the restroom.  Their simple stone house had just one room for the whole family.  Sometimes, on cold nights the animals will join them inside.  The father was already gone to work in the fields, and the mother was gearing up to make a day’s trek into town to sell potatoes.  The younger children would be watched after by their older sister.  Running water comes from the stream several hundred feet away.  They have no electricity, no toilet.  Life is simple, but not easy.  Along our trek, we saw evidence of governmental and NGO aid efforts to improve literacy and immunization rates.  We learned about intermittent efforts to curb poverty and improve maternal, infant and under-5 mortality rates.  Meanwhile, many children still wear government issue sandals year-round and survive on less than $2 per day.

We stumbled down the poorly maintained government built road to our pickup destination.  We reflected on how lucky we were to trek in such a beautiful region without running into another tourist group.  We can only imagine what the classic Sacred Valley trek looks like every day with 500 people all using the same trail (and the same toilet facilities).   After lunch and a short drive to the town of Ollantaytambo we boarded a train for Aguas Calientes. 

The Spanish conquests wiped out the Incas but ruins remain visible from almost every town in the region.   There is something about piles of rubble and abandoned buildings that evoke eerie feelings.  However, this was overpowered by the toxic magnetism of the tourist traps and commercial overgrowth within Aguas Calientes.  No matter, we came here for one reason, and one reason only . . . Machu Picchu.  Set atop a mountain more than 7,800 feet above sea level, the former estate to the Incan emperor Pachacuti was a true feat of pre-industrialized construction.  However, we are not sure it deserves the acclaim it receives.  Supposedly, it was only inhabited for 30 years before the emperor’s successor drew the people off the mountain to develop a new kingdom.  Occasionally, it is incorrectly referred to as the lost city, and everybody has their own take on the energy they feel there.  It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the last 30 years and in 2007 it was voted one of the New Seven Wonders of the World.  It seems Peru is still learning how to balance the welcomed influx of tourists with their money versus the effects they have on the relatively small and still developing communities.

On our way back through Cusco we splurged on digs at the Palacio del Inka.  A perfect end to any trek, we spent some much needed time at the spa.  We found quality pie at Nanno’s Pizza and earthy eats at Green Point.  It wasn’t quite smooth sailing out of town as we got hung out on a laundry debacle.  It obviously didn’t leave too bad a taste in our mouth because we left feeling great.  Our high altitude headaches had subsided and we had survived another trek above 15,000 feet.  Overall, we loved Cusco and the slice of Peru that filled our week.  Add it to the list of countries we hope to return to in the future.                                                                      

 

  

  

  

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FRom the granite peaks and the painted Andean desert to the delicate malbecs, torrontés, and syrahs, Argentina has both rugged caballeros and sophisticated sommeliers. Upon arrival to Buenos Aires we met Nathalia’s sister, Bianca. We wasted no time as the next morning we boarded the ferry to Uruguay. This was our first border crossing by boat; A small but exciting first nonetheless. We arrived at Colonia del Sacramento. Originally founded by the Portuguese more than 300 years ago, it served as the port to smuggle goods across the Rio de la Plata.

We visited South America’s oldest church and strolled the cobblestone streets stopping in at cafes and galleries as we saw fit. The narrow alleys, colonial era building facades, and classic cars all lent themselves to incredible photos.

We sampled the region’s bounty with a prolonged wine tasting and finally found some enjoyable coffee and sweets. We stumbled onto great food rich in flavor and texture and great wine to complement both the food and dinner talk.

Our next leg included a bus to Uruguay’s capital, Montevideo. There are less than 4 million people in the whole country and it shows. Once out of the city the landscape quickly changed to green pastures broken up by the occasional small town. In Montevideo we visited the stadium of the very first World Cup in 1930; One of only two World Cup trophies claimed by Uruguay.

Crazy cabbies mismatched the laid back feel of the coastal town. A staunchly Catholic city, downtown Montevideo felt almost like a ghost town on Sunday. Our driver explained, “There’s a new president to take office next month and no one is going to work until then. This is not the US, my friend.”

It took a little work and a lot of sweat under the blazing sun, but we found fine dining among the plethora of parillas (grills) with mediocre to bad online reviews. We were living the highlife with quality coffee and tasty sandwiches. For dinner, I had the equivalent of a seafood turducken and we all gorged on wine and various forms of dulce de leche desserts.

We took a nonstop ferry back to Buenos Aires and dove headfirst in the cultural history, but not before making rounds at the high end espresso houses. We strolled Florida street and visited the beautiful mall Galerías Pacífico on our way to the Plaza de Mayo to see the president’s home La Casa Rosada. We saw Buenos Aires’ iconic Obelisco; That weird flower sculpture that opens and closes throughout the day; And the Teatro Colón, built in 1908, it was the largest theater in the Southern Hemisphere until the Sydney Opera House. We normally don’t make special trips to cemeteries, but in Recoleta it was a must. There are towering mausoleums and elaborate subterranean crypts housing past generations of Argentina’s elite. Less visited, but older and perhaps more interesting the Basilica Nuestra Señora Del Pilar, a 300 year old church built by the monks of the Order of the Recoletos (Recollections).

We dedicated time to Palermo for more coffee at Lattente and Full City Cafe as well as delicious food at Bio Solo Organico. In the evening, we attended a Tango Show with dancing spectacular enough to distract us from the wretched food and wine they served.

We bid a fond farewell to Bianca, although she barely made it to airport when her “shuttle” broke down several times enroute. There was one silver lining as she caught a beautiful sunset on the way. Check out Bianca Elizabeth Photography for a more poetic visual documentary of our time together http://blog.biancaelizabeth.com/.

Despite Bianca’s roadside misfortune, I’d say – overall – Buenos Aires has the nicest cab drivers we’ve met. They still drive nuts, but pleasant folk nonetheless. And no matter how crazy the cabs are, the bus drivers are a hundredfold worse. It is said, “Ellos comen malhumor para desayunar,” or roughly translated, “They eat bad mood for breakfast.”

We had just one night between sending off Bianca and greeting Nathalia’s parents, Deb and Tyler. As chance would have it, friends would arrive in town that very evening on a honeymoon of their own. We met the Mindells for dinner and ate like the locals at the busiest Parrilla in Palermo. This was a comfortable respite from the constant traveling rigamarole as we discussed everything from current events back home to plans for the future. They had just visited Cuba and had lots to share about the truths contrary to the popular beliefs so heavily ingrained from television and movies of the long-time culturally isolated island.

Argentina operates on Castellano or Castilian Spanish. I was under the impression it was just an added lisp. To my dismay, there were nuances to pronunciation as difficult as French and slang terms no dictionary can accurately define. Lastly, I wish I’d paid closer attention to the ‘vosotros’ form in school. We survived nonetheless, and definitely with communication mishaps fewer and farther between than when we were in Asia.

Debra and Tyler Sciotto barely arrived due to Snowstorms in Atlanta. They were gracefully redirected through Houston and only lost a few hours. It was a miracle as well because we were on a tight schedule to see what else Argentina had to offer. But not before a great dinner of steaks and trout at El Mercado in Hotel Faena within the beautiful and newly developed barrio Puerto Madera.

The next morning we left for El Calafate, the launching point to discover the Patagonian steppe. We drove the epic Ruta 40 – equivalent to our Route 66 – to El Chalten and settled into our quaint and comfy lodge style bed and breakfast. Blessed with good weather we hiked to Lago de Los Tres and caught incredible views from the base of Fitz Roy. We got our money’s worth with gusts of wind strong enough to blow you over and rain on our way back. Nathalia drew circles around the many caterpillars with her trekking pole to help other hikers avoid smushing them along the trail.

Exhausted and sore the next day, the wind was stronger and rain heavier so we braved the weather just long enough to walk from shop to cafe, and to the next shop and cafe.
We filled the day with waffles, empanadas, microbrews, ice cream and shopping. Locro (Lamb Stew), trout, and steak each night was always good and accompanied by great wines. Mayonnaise accompanies the bread and is usually flavored – sometimes with unusual ingredients. Each meal began with a game of Guess-the-Mayo.

We found the best gnocchi that exists outside of the Sciotto residence at El Cucharon in the town of El Calafate. We drove to Perito Moreno, the most accessible glacier I’ve ever seen for viewing. The next day we laced up the crampons and set out on a glacier trek. We toasted local whiskey chilled by 350 year old glacial ice and finished the day with more great food and wine at the quaint Mi Rancho restaurant.

Next, we booked passage across the Chilean border to visit Torres del Paine. This short leg of our journey was not without its troubles. Just an hour-and-a-half into our ride the engine started knocking and smoke began to trail us. Luckily, we made it to the only rest stop along the scheduled 5 hour trip. It was only a small milagro (miracle), but at least we could sit inside instead of on the side of the long, barren, desolate road. After a couple hours a relief van picked us up to continue our crossing. Approaching the Chilean border the paved roads disintegrate to gravel and the ride gets a little rougher. Our driver was determined to make up lost time, and in his haste, broke the rear window just behind our heads. We arrived at the Chilean border, but as luck would have it, one of the two vans to complete our journey broke down and we were left to wait once again. This gave us plenty of time to pick the glass from our hair and try the local rabbit sandwiches.

When we finally arrived, we realized it was all worth the work when we saw the spectacular views and vast surrounding expanse from Hotel las Torres. Patagonia is big and beautiful in every direction. Sometimes it looks a little barren with scrub brush and exposed sandy washes. The running joke was its similarity to Nevada. That is, except for the llama-shaped guanacos and the monstrous granite spires in the distance. From our bedroom window we saw horses, half a dozen species of birds, and a family of foxes just minutes apart.

The next day we explored the grounds with a short day hike under light rain. The food was good but the views were great, and we drew out dinners tasting wines and unhurried conversations. We closed down the dining hall each night as we were in no rush to get to bed.

With a clear day ahead we hiked the steady climb to approach Torres del Paine. It reminded us slightly of trekking through Nepal as we passed backpackers and horse trains. We climbed along the lush green valley until we crossed the tree line and basked in the glory of the triumphant spires.

Our last leg of Argentina took us to the North. A top five destination of South America, we couldn’t miss Iguaçu Falls. We were fortunate enough to stay in the National Park at the Sheraton and benefitted from the easy access and breathtaking views of the falls. A light rail and an elaborate boardwalk system both above and below the falls provides optimal viewing and an added boat ride gives you the full experience of the Iguaçu baptism.

We took a taxi to Puerto Iguaçu and saw the Tres Fronteras – Borders of Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina separated by the rivers Paraná and Iguaçu. There wasn’t much to the town, but we found delicious fish, local beers, and more conversations I will never forget. Six months ago the Sciottos hosted the best wedding we could ever have imagined. To have them with us in Argentina and on our honeymoon has been just as special.

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With both of us marginally recovered we began our longest overseas journey yet, from Germany to Brazil. With 2 stops we got a stepwise reintroduction to warm weather and short sleeves. We’ve been to New Orleans, but not during Mardi Gras, and aside from clips on television, we had only a vague idea of what lay ahead at Rio’s Carnival. The first thing we noticed was the traffic. Our cab driver warned us ahead of time. We looked at the traffic online and the whole city seemed to glow red. Our 15 minute ride took over an hour and a half. The second thing we noticed was Portuguese. There were few Spanish speakers and even less obliged us with English. In fact, Brazil seemed to speak the least English of any country we visited thus far. Portuguese is tough. From pronunciation to vocabulary we were unprepared and slow to learn. Our real time translator was not too helpful. It uses promising technology that needs refinement. It seems to make menu items particularly unappetizing. Tripadvisor has been good to us. With a grain of salt, we’ve found enjoyable meals throughout the world. The locations have been inexplicably inaccurate with their map feature, but the more reviews, the more reliable the impressions. Understandably, hours of operation may be harder to keep track of. This is especially true during holidays and off-season in remote areas. We have struck out more than once, but three strikes and we were out after climbing all the way up to Santa Teresa and we settled at what looked like a neighborhood institution. It had dust on fixtures so thick it had to be old. To our dismay the rice was flavorless; the pickles were mushy; and the fries were soggy. It was no surprise there were no stray cats hanging around outside. I wish I could say that was our worst culinary experience in Rio, but the list is long. From pathetic sandwiches resembling Po-boys to thick flavorless steaks, the punishment came in many forms. Kilograma is a pay-by-weight buffet popular all times of day. From a distance it all looked fairly appetizing, but even at arms length the truth began to reveal itself. It could only be described as poor-quality hospital food. The only redeeming quality was the strongest Caiparinhas (local cocktail) in the city. Fear not. There were some gems in the city. With its sizzling pot of meats and sides of greens, potatoes, and manioc we enjoyed the pomp and circumstance of the traditional feijoada. Restaurante Aprazivel stood up to expectations. Amazonia Soul in Ipanema serves real Açai instead of the sugar-infused frozen mush. And even in a culture so dependent on meat, we found delicious vegetarian fair at Gaia Art & Cafe, on the Northeast end of Copacabana. “Pardon our dust,” must seem unnecessary in Brazil as our hotel made no mention of the ongoing remodel. It is beyond me why they didn’t have this done any week of the year besides Carnival. We thought we’d be unaffected from the sanctity of our air conditioned room, but – lo and behold – wifi worked only from the lobby, and marginally at that. There wasn’t even a front door yet! No malaria concerns in Rio, but dengue runs rampant and the hotel’s “open-door” policy brought us back to nature with the mosquitos. No big deal, except nobody wants to watch someone swat at mosquitos during a videoconference. With work out of the way we set out to experience Carnival. We ambled along the beach fronts and strolled the streets of Copacabana and Ipanema partaking in the drunken chaos. By day the blocos (block parties) paraded through the streets as a dancing mob. By night sun-baked and alcohol-infused bodies amplified the energy with dance anywhere there was a beat. Antarctica beer was sold every 10 feet and cans discarded by revelers were quickly recovered by others collecting for return money. In every group someone always carried a bottle of warm Smirnoff to sustain the consummate buzz. The most macho men dressed in the skimpiest dresses and strangers made out at every intersection. The balmy weather and sexually charged culture encouraged most costumes to be “barely there,” while others resembled a cheap Halloween with Mario Bros’ likeness the most popular this year. For two nights in a row rain crashed the party and flooded the streets. The sloppy-drunk costume-clad and near-naked only danced harder to keep warm in the rain. All was well until the reality of returning home set in. Buses were chocked full of sopping wet boozers and fist fights broke out over taxis. We had been tipping well previously to stock up on “cab-karma,” and it worked. We made it back to the city center without much difficulty. Each night we returned safely we let out a sigh of relief. We had received multiple warnings of mugging, armed robbery, and even violent crime. We were told to carry a wad of singles to throw at a robber before you run. We hid credit cards and big bills in our shoes. We carried info cards from our hotel with numbers for the tourism police and closest hospital. I survived a close call with an IPA. We found refuge from the rain in a corner restaurant. It kept us dry and gave us front row seats to watch the drunk and now soaking wet bacchanalia flow through the streets. The rain let up and we were ready to move on, but as I tipped back the last of my beer I felt something drop onto the floor of my mouth. Luckily, it partially embedded itself and I managed to resist swallowing the foreign and unexpected object. To both my dismay and relief I removed a sickle-shaped shard from my mouth. Apparently, twist-off tops are not used as directed as our waiter had popped the top instead. There’s no love for Detroit in Brazil. NY Yankee’s hats dominate the recognizable American apparel, although Chicago Bull’s jerseys take a close second with mostly Derrick Rose number 1 and some classic Jordan 23. We rounded out our cultural tour with views of Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer) and Pãn de Açúcar (Sugarloaf). A series of cable cars carry passengers atop Sugarloaf mountain for the best views of the city. And then there was the Sambadrome. We have little to compare this to in the US. Imagine a 10 hour halftime show complete with music, dancing, the most elaborate costumes and floats you’ve ever seen parade all night long for four nights in a row. Keep in mind this is a competition. The largest and most famous samba schools from all over the country compete to be recognized as champions each year. Their songs become anthems for years to come sung in the streets by all walks of life. We followed the flow of people that began almost a mile away. It was quiet in the streets but the air felt electric. We walked through dark alley ways and past makeshift bodegas until we reached the bright lights and security checkpoint. We proudly donned our sector 4 lanyards and breeched the entrance. We could hear the music, the crowd, and feel the rising energy ahead. Our first look at the half-mile long stage was unlike anything we’d seen before. I wept softly at the immense beauty and array of colors before my eyes. We had missed the first school’s presentation, but no worries, there was still 8 hours to be seen. The next school opened with parachuters streaming smoke and a six-story eagle. The energy consumed us, and soon we were singing along in Portuguese and dancing in the stands. Each samba school has as much as 82 minutes to traverse the Sambadrome. They play, sing, and dance to their song on repeat throughout their themed presentation. Classically structured with flag-bearing couples, drum lines, scantily-clad peacock inspired samba dancers, and hundreds upon hundreds of costumed paraders singing their hearts out between wildly elaborate floats. We felt guilty leaving before the show was over, but surprised to find it was past 4 am. We followed a flow of costume-clad paraders through a tunnel towards our hotel. They looked energized and exhausted at the same time. They looked both relieved and disappointed that the year’s worth of work had finally concluded. Costumes lay abandoned in the streets and I ended the night with a beer and cheeseburger from Bob’s burgers. It was both disgusting and delicious all the same. Rio’s Carnival was both exciting and exhausting. Obrigado Brasil.

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Arriving in Berlin at Tegel Airport is a quick “Welcome to Europe.” Passport control meets you at the gate. Truthfully, we were in Turkey before Germany, and admittedly so, we had to consult the map before declaring our arrival to a new continent. Where to draw the line? While visiting Cappadocia, Turkey our tour guide described Turkey’s historical borders and geopolitical landmarks and asked the group, “Do I look Asian or European?” We took into account that he spoke English, did not use chopsticks, and did not put curry in every dish. We asked, “With which do you identify yourself?” I think a western-style toilet in the house could be the deciding factor.

Nowhere are geopolitical lines more controversial than Israel, however, a discussion of annexed lands versus occupied territories belongs in our blog no more than we belong in Ramallah. A close second to Israel’s confusing paint-by-numbers and color-between-the-lines border wars is Berlin’s historical division. Much of the city was destroyed durning the Wars, but what remains tells a collective story of a formerly geopolitically divided city with both physical and cultural partitions.

Upon arrival we met my brother, Alex, and his fiancé, Marisa. Alex has been working in Vienna and Berlin, and finished his work tour with a vacation for him and his lady. To their credit, Berlin in February is not the ideal vacation but they seized the opportunity for the four of us to be together. Unfortunately, Loren fell ill with a flu-like-illness and had to take a sick day. Despite illness we still managed to have a wonderful dinner together and toured a significant amount of the city. We visited the famous Checkpoint Charlie, the Monument for the Murdered Jews of Europe, and the Jewish History Museum. The Jewish memorials were both carefully designed and crafted to elicit both physical and emotional feelings of uneasiness and vestibular disorientation. Pictures alone don’t do them justice. As Loren recovered in quarantine, the rest visited the top sites from the historic Brandenburg Gate and Victory Column to the architecturally fascinating Reichstag.

Our time together was short lived but quality. we got married in September and know what Alex and Marisa’s next several months will entail. We are excited for their wedding and the experience they’ll have to share with each other.

Inevitably, as Lo got better Nathalia got sick. We moved across town to Charlottenburg, and despite fevers, severe cough and congestion we toured the area on foot. We visited the Story of Berlin Museum, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church, and the Helmut Newton Photography Foundation. The Story of Berlin was educational enough itself, but the highlight was the underground Cold War-era bunker designed to house 3,500 people for two weeks – likely under conditions only marginally better than the nuclear winter they would’ve emerged to find.

Brother-from-another-mother Dennis and his wife, Sezen, took the bus from Hamburg to meet us. We capitalized on the best brunch spots of the city and took things slow with a stop at an old-fashioned coffee and cake shop. No wifi there; just tea and coffee with sweets and maybe a glass of sherry. Our dinners varied from traditional and hardy German meat-and-potatoes to contemporary and exotic Thai noodles. We visited the Eastside Gallery and even travelled to the top of the 368 meter Television Tower. Our last day together was rainy and cold, however, at a moment’s notice Dennis was able to book a driving tour in the Magic Bus; a restored 1970s VW van with Jens, a cabbie and history enthusiast that completed our coverage of the city.

Our cousin Daniel has spent the last decade carving his niche in the Berlin theater and klezmer music scene. He showed us around town from the contemporary art museum to Virchow’s Anatomical museum. He invited us to a concert he had curated and we even got to see him perform. We got the locals’ food experience from a Turkish seafood restaurant under the tracks to Dan’s neighborhood hummus stop. We found the best coffee we’ve had in months at the Barn Roastery and the best sandwiches we’ve had at Mogg and Melzer. The flu really slowed us down but Dan and his girlfriend, Nora, were nice enough to meet us on our side of town at one of their favorite noodle shops. It was busy enough and, for their sake, we’ll keep the name unmentioned.

Through our journey around the world and despite the beautiful sights and exotic places the draw of family and friends beckons us home.

But not before our South American adventure. Next stop Rio! And Carnival!

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Another country to check off the list and another stamp in the passport. International travel has become routine; No checklists needed. We search online for the baggage allowances and pack our bags accordingly. Some airlines allow 25 kg and everything fits in our wheeled behemoths. Some airlines allow only 15 or 20 kg and we wear a few more layers of clothes and load up our carry-ons. Keep your passports out for checkin, security, passport control, and finally at the gate. Stop in duty free to freshen up with a little perfume or cologne. Figure out the free wifi to check in with the parents and cue up the downloaded movie or tv shows. After 27 flights, it feels like a weekly commute.

The difference this time is that we had company. Mom and Dad – Marla and Neil – accompanied us and helped the time pass with ease. After 5 months there are endless stories to tell and plenty to catch up about the happenings at home.

When we arrived in Tel Aviv, believe it or not, the cab driver not only wouldn’t let us over pay, he even let us use his cell phone to call our cousin, Irit.

Israelis are not rude, but most personify sass, spunk, and sensibility. Irit is no different. She believes in principles, she doesn’t waste time on the mundane or irrelevant, and always takes care of family. She greeted us at the door of our residence and contacted the property manager to escort us in. He had not prepared our apartment and Irit helped him square away our accommodations. He left and returned several times with soap, toilet paper, towels, keys, and finally flowers – at the urging of his girlfriend. Once settled we headed to dinner and met Irit’s husband Yossi. We ate at one of their favorite neighborhood joints; An Arab-Israeli restaurant with delicious hummus and grilled fare. As we caught up, conversations ran the gamut from family affairs to the Israeli two-state solution.

We have acquiesced to a comfortable shoestring budget and we must say how thankful and happy we were to travel with parents eager to organize accommodations and touring. The next morning we met our tour guide for the week, Ari. His enthusiasm and love for sharing history and culture was immediately obvious and didn’t wane once throughout the week.

Our first day of touring began in the old city, Jerusalem. There is so much history here and so much tension among Jews, Arabs, and Christians, yet life goes on day by day. We covered a lot of ground and a lot of history from the Mount of Olives and City of David to the Stations of the Cross and Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We ended with the building – allegedly – of the Last Supper as well as the Tomb of David below. We headed back to Tel Aviv, but not before walking through the Valley of the Shadow of Death. We also transported back in time as we drove through a Hasidic neighborhood. Their traditional garb and storefronts separated by news postings gave the village a 18th
century Poland feel, that is, with the exception of the cell phones the men carried.

That night we mustered the energy to walk to the pier for dinner. We reminisced about our wedding in California and talked about the exciting family events to come.

Day two of touring began in Jaffa, the old port city now occupied by artists and high end boutiques. We ambled through the streets peeking into the more interesting storefronts before exploring Tel Aviv. It’s amazing to think this bustling city was once all sand dunes. We ended at a famous graveyard that once resided outside of the city. As the population grew as did the city’s borders. Now, the cemetery lies in the heart of Tel Aviv. Ari was familiar with this site and named all the various celebrities and former politicians buried in this sacred place. We had our own special reason for the visit and Ari helped us find Neil’s great grandfather’s grave.

That night we had our fist home cooked meal in months at Yossi and Irit’s house. They went all out with kishka, kasha, meatballs, salad and veggies. It was delicious.

The following days included wine tasting from Mt Carmel, hummus, the Church of Annunciation in Nazareth, falafel, learning Kaballah in Safed, more hummus, visiting the Bahai Gardens in Haifa, and more.

Our guide, Ari covered everything from the historical volumes of this epic landscape to the cultural nuances and complicated social milieu; From how to share communal hummus to who speaks Hebrew, Arabic, or Yiddish to whom and with what intentions. Ari even joined us for a family dinner with distant cousins Shuli and his family. The world seems just a bit smaller after meeting distant cousins – all with children of their own – thriving in their own beautiful and happy family unit halfway across the globe.

We bid a fond farewell to the parents and headed off on our own to explore Tel Aviv. We strolled through a charming antique market, tasted more hummus, and found some life-changing falafel. Cousin Yossi invited us over for Shabbat dinner, and even without Irit, dinner was fabulous. In addition, we were able to meet cousins: Eran, Dor, and Michal.

Our last day in Israel took us to Mt Masada and the Dead Sea. Our guide, Jacob wore a Detroit Tiger’s hat. In fact, we should mention, over the last 5 months and throughout the last 10 countries we’ve seen more Detroit Tiger’s and University of Michigan apparel than any other items. Yankee’s hats sit a distant third.

Mt Masada is truly impressive. Herod the Great built his palace and the fortified city atop the rising mesa in the first century BCE. Later, it was occupied by the Jewish Zealots to escape the Romans. It took 2-3 months before the Romans breached the fortress walls only to find the 960 Zealots dead by their own hands. The Jews decided they’d rather put their own families to death than live to see them enslaved by the Romans.

The Dead Sea was a biblical place of refuge for King David and one of the world’s first health resorts for Herod the Great. It’s shores sit at 429 meters BELOW sea level, making it the lowest place on Earth, and more than 9 times saltier than the ocean, it’s one of the saltiest bodies of water as well. Despite the chilly temps we floated for a bit before covering ourselves with mud and rinsing in the warm sulphur spring waters.

After a leisurely breakfast we bid farewell to our apartment in the city, and en route to the airport, once again, the cab driver wouldn’t let us overpay. Bags packed. Back to the airport. Duty free stop before the next flight. Talk to you from Berlin.

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When we began charting our course around the world, bridging Asia to Europe, we were limited as to where a stopover would occur. Istanbul seemed like the most appealing location, and instead of a one hour layover, we made it a one week stay over. Our first destination was the region of Cappadocia – pronounced and spelled Kapadokya in Turkish. This region is know for its Dr. Seuss-looking rock formations carved from the soft volcanic tufa. Fairy chimneys and pigeon houses are the main draw with ceramics and Turkish hospitality a close second.

We booked a room at the Cappadocia Suites Hotel and found our room was, in fact, a grotto carved into the iconic tufa yet fitted with modern-day accouterments such as heated floors and an oversized bathtub. The hotel itself felt like a centuries-old village with attention paid to every detail.

Our first day was spent with Aminah at her home, and in her kitchen. She spoke very little, well almost no English, but her smile assured us she was loving every moment of our time in her kitchen. Her son Eminah stayed with us for the duration and translated for his mother and taught us about the culture of the Turks. Every ingredient from the dishes we made came from her garden and was either dried, canned or frozen. We toured her dry storage room where she was aging her own cheese and the garden that included a fruit orchard with at least a dozen trees.

The following day we discovered the region. We found breathtaking overlooks with panoramic views of the tufa spires and fairy chimneys. We descended into Derinkuyu – one of the many underground cities. Thought to be occupied only during times of danger, the subterranean behemoth travels 85 meters underground spanning 16 stories. Aside from living quarters, it included a church, a morgue, and even stables. Even more interesting, when it was stumbled upon in 1920’s it was empty, and thus, undateable. The actual population and age of the dwelling is all speculation.

No trip to the region would be complete without landing at a
family-owned pottery factory. Our host expounded about the high fire temperature and thus superior quality compared to common market trinkets, but the proof was in the artistry. The plates, bowels, and carafes were so intricately decorated it was mesmerizing.

Food has been the ultimate determinant whether or not we truly love a region, and Turkish cuisine did not disappoint. Warm freshly baked bread was always in abundance and healthy portions of grilled meat and stewed vegetables were subtly spiced with intricate flavors. It seemed like any meal was really just an opportunity for baklava, and we indulged enthusiastically. Turkish tea and coffee were flavorful, warming, and energizing. Ayran was a new experience, and the anise flavored Raki is our new favorite aperitif.

Turkey has kept pace with the Western world with sealed roads and convenient travel throughout the country. Flights, buses, and trains are easy to navigate without speaking the language. Our destination was Pamukkale for the travertine pools. Our hotel clerk was kind enough to drive us to the South entrance of Hieropolis. If you can imagine a European Disneyland without any rides. We wandered among the millennia-old ruins and waited until sunset to descend along the pools and back into town.

We made our way back to Istanbul to meet up with familiar faces, our parents. We got a guide and enjoyed a tour of the historic city. We marveled at the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (blue mosque) named because of the blue tiles that line the interior, though it smells of feet from the thousands of barefoot tourists it was still a stunning site. Hagia Sophia the 6th century Byzantine architectural wonder was once a church that later became a mosque and is now a museum. The Basilica Cistern, a romantic and ominous underground candle lit sanctuary use to be the place which brought drinking water into Istanbul. Walking the grounds of the Topkapi palace, the residence of the ottoman sultans for 400 years we saw a 87 carat diamond and Muhammeds cloak and sword. Our blood sugar was bottoming out so we made a detour for the best baklava in Turkey- to me no baklava is bad baklava. Finishing our day with a overlook of the city from a rooftop and a lil stroll through the grand bazaar and spice market.

Our next journey together will be to learn about the land and history of Israel, I feel so blessed to do this my parents-in-law. As always thank you for following us.

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Note: During our time in India there were simply too many dubious taxi encounters to list here. The following includes a few choice encounters.

Many westerners have a misconstrued ideal of what the Mother country of Yoga looks like. At least we did. We sought peace and serenity. We found chaos and tumult. Incessant car horns; Fog so dense you can’t see your arm out stretched in front of you; The smells, oh the smells, both good and bad; The crowded streets lined with vendors and young children begging; The roving packs of dogs and monkeys; The red residue of beetle-nut spit in every corner painting it to look like a murder scene. This is an India we did not envision.

Fight or flight; Adrenaline and Noradrenaline blood levels surge; The heart races, respiratory rate increases, and pupils dilate; Cortisol levels respond to stress especially stimuli of your surroundings. Born into chaos your body adjusts, but being tourists in the tumult caused constant tension in our bodies, often wondering if we would make it out alive….seriously

Our first great Delhi taxi endeavor was a freeway folly. In an attempt to partially insulate ourselves from the madness we splurged on a private car from New Delhi to Agra. We made relatively good time in less than 4 hours utilizing the beautiful new tollway. The road was nearly empty as it is likely cost prohibitive to commuters, however, there were frequent pedestrians scrambling across the sea of tarmac to get to the next village as well as herds of goats and buffalo grazing on the shoulder and median unfazed by the traffic speeding by. On our way home there was even less traffic, and the monotonous scenery was hypnotic. With residual fog and no lights to line the highway the ride turned into a quiet lullaby to sooth us to sleep. Our driver included! He nodded off several times, changed lanes inadvertently, and it was all we could do to make small talk and keep him awake. This was made more difficult due to his limited English and our limitations in Hindi.

In Delhi we took to the tourist track to visit the holy temples, shrines, and historic relics. The Red Fort was underwhelming and the included museum told a disjointed and patchy history. Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial is understated as he would have wanted. The national mall between the Parliament building and the India gate was already covered with bleachers and equipment in preparation for the Jan 26 Republic Day Celebrations. This year’s guest of honor is our very own President Obama. Although, it’s questionable how much time Mr. President will actually spend outside considering the forecast for dreaded air quality levels during his visit.

We visited Sikh, Muslim, and Baha’i holy sites to gain a deeper appreciation for the religious diversity. It’s probably all relative to its surroundings, but even inside the holy gates there seemed to lack piety and reverence to those in observance. The exception was the beautiful Baha’i Lotus temple. It floats above a surrounding water feature alone among the lush expansive grounds. The temple itself is composed of 27 free-standing marble-clad “petals” arranged in clusters to form nine sides. After a brief introduction staff led us into the temple open for silent meditation. This was the first religious building with a quiet atmosphere and the first that felt remotely spiritual, but even the thick concrete walls and spacious grounds couldn’t completely drown out the noise of Delhi.

Our next roadway lesson was that, “Too safe is unsafe.” We hired a driver to take us from Mumbai to Pune; A drive we were told would take anywhere between 2.5 to 4.5 hours. Our driver seemed as capable as any; weaving through city traffic and cutting off trucks and tuk tuks at every opportunity. We thought we’d make great time, that is, until we hit the highway. For whatever reason our aggressive and hurried driver in the city cut it to just 45 mph on the highway. Cars and trucks sped by us in the fast lane, and we were even passed by a tractor. The few slower trucks he did pass he would overtake on the shoulder. His behavior didn’t change despite our inquiries and protests as he insisted, “Safety is number one.” His Mumbai instincts returned as we exited the highway and headed into the hills outside Pune. Again, our driver would tailgate constantly and even pass on blind corners atop the cliffsides.

The Taj Mahal, or Crown Palace, Is truly a jewel of India. A full day return trip from Delhi. Still worth the trip as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and often listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It was truly majestic. The white marble was barely discernible from the fog if not for the iconic silhouette separating the two. The grounds were immaculate and visitors were quiet and respectful. Stats on the structure are mind boggling when you consider the materials utilized and the man-hours required. The sheer size impresses as much as the minute artistry of precious stones inlayed into the marble. The 17th century Mughal king built the structure as a masouleum for his third wife after she passed. Essentially, a gift she could never appreciate.

On our way back from Pune we insisted on a different driver than whoever brought us there. The driver that greeted us, although no English to speak of, seemed professional enough at the outset. We had an uneventful trip atop the cliffsides and onto the tollway. That is, until we stopped in line at the toll booth itself. We were immersed in a program on our iPad when we noticed our driver had changed from intermittent honks to a constant ringing of the horn. He laid on it for a solid two minutes before getting out of the vehicle to throw a hissy fit. Just before his agitation truly boiled over, the truck ahead us began to move. We thought we were on our way until our crazed-eyed driver cutoff the truck and grinded to a halt in front of it. Despite our protests our driver jumped out of the car shouting the only Hindi words I know (swear words) and faced off with the truck driver. Although we could guess what was likely being said, we still cannot figure out what could have happened to cause two grown men to come so close to blows in the middle of the busy tollway. Our last two hours in Mumbai traffic were awkward to say the least and our driver certainly did not subscribe to the mantra, “Don’t drive angry.” Whew, survived another one.

Wanting stillness and a place to decompress from the cities madness we found a quiet ashram tucked away in the hills of Pune. We were delighted to find a community that would support a private retreat for us. Accommodations were sufficient with a spacious two-story duplex and flavorful vegetarian Indian cuisine. We reconnected with our yoga asana practice and meditation in the quiet wilderness. As with most ashrams or communities, there are ancient teachings of a guru perpetuated by the order of swamis. We did, however, fail to read the small print that somehow included Jesus in its ancient lineage. Everyone there was kind especially the sweet community dig, mamma. Their teachings weren’t something that’s spoke to us.

Our last taste of India was one of the hardest to swallow. An early departure meant an even earlier cab ride to the airport. We exited our hotel room at 3 am only to find the hotel staff asleep and strewn throughout the hallway like dirty laundry hastily discarded on the floor. We crammed into a government owned taxi and immediately began negotiations. The driver didn’t speak much English and the bellman acted as translator. The driver opened with a high price explaining it was a night-time rate. I suggested we use the meter and he acted as if it was blasphemy. To avoid a round-about tour of Mumbai to jack up the fare we kind of agreed on a fixed rate. I say “kind of” because the bellman just kept doing the side-ways head shake and the driver sped off. The fixed-rate attempt to avoid the scenic tour was for naught. Our driver avoided every freeway and found the sketchiest and most putrid smelling back alleys to drive us through. It’s unclear whether his clutch was shot or his understanding of its purpose was incomplete – probably a combination – but after we stalled for the fourth time the situation turned from comical to borderline scary. Our direction indicated we were headed towards the airport and we endured. The cab sputtered to a stop in front of international departures and we couldn’t get out fast enough. Knowingly or not the driver started the meter when we left the hotel. I paid him the fair, even generously rounded up. He angrily held out his hand looking for more and I lost it. I lost it for all of the miscommunications, headaches, and rip-offs. I lost it over the head shake, the filth, the begging, and crowds. I lost it over the stress inducing, catecholamine-surging, fearing for my life. “Your taxi shouldn’t even be in service!” I exclaimed. He may not have understood my words, but he saw it in my eyes, redacted his request, and drove off. And that was India…

You don’t have to visit an Ashram in India to find peace, and you don’t live in India, you survive.

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Phnom Penh —Bangkok —Mumbai —Kathmandu —Bharatpur

Airline schedule adjustments altered our timetables reminding us that we are at the whim of forces larger than ourselves. And we are thankful that all our travels have been without incident thus far. Original travel plans packed these four legs into less than a day albeit with no significant layovers and a more direct route. Instead we stretched this out to 36 hours and spent the night in Mumbai’s Chhatrapati International Airport. However, to us both, it was not the worst overnight in a terminal. The airport operates 24 hours and couches and loungers do accommodate stretching out the legs.

Surprisingly, internet was unavailable, and we were unable to confirm our arrival to Rajendra – our Nepali fixer. However, upon arrival to Kathmandu we could hear Rajendra calling from the crowd, and it was immediately obvious that everything would be alright. We sat for lunch as he brought us up to speed on the weeks ahead and he booked our plane tickets to Bharatpur on his cellphone without even a break in conversation.

During residency I visited Nepal for a global health elective put on by the University of New Mexico. I don’t remember much about flying into Kathmandu three years ago, but one step into the airport, the brickwork and sweet smell brought me back. The people, the food, and the land left an indelible mark in my heart, and I have not felt at peace the same way until arriving once again at KTM.

Before we knew it we were loaded onto a 17 passenger plane and off to the Terai of Southern Nepal. From the airport there was a taxi ride traversing just 18 kilometers over unsealed road that took upwards of an hour! We arrived at Eco Wildlife Lodge and greeted our host, Kumar. Picture Jurassic Park meets Couples Retreat. We had a delicious meal of paneer and curried vegetables with lentil soup and rice cooked just for us.

6:15 am wake up knock and coffee before our first elephant safari. The rain stopped and the mist sublimated just enough to make out deer, wild boar, and even rhino. After breakfast Kumar walked us through a local Tharu village and expounded on the history of the region. A second elephant safari was scheduled for our afternoon, and with reluctance we boarded Rani once again. To our surprise, we saw two sets of mother rhinos with babies.

The next day included a nature walk with Kumar to cover the local flora and fauna of the Chitwan National Park. We took a guided canoe ride to see a multitude of bird species and several hefty specimens of both the local mugger and gharial crocodiles. With deep respect and gratitude we witnessed a funeral procession and cremation at the riverside. It was both somber and beautiful.

Our farewell to Chitwan included a driving safari and visit to the gharial crocodile breeding facility. There were hundreds of crocs there ranging in size from hatchlings to 15 feet. Late in the day Kumar screeched the jeep to a halt. He raised his hand signaling us to be still. He exited the vehicle and began to track the scent. He sniffed a tree and raked his hand across the dirt before declaring, “I smell something sweet – tiger urine.” Sure enough, just 10 feet down a turnoff from the main road we found fresh tiger tracks in the mud.

Equally astonishing to Kumar’s jungle knowledge, the resort’s kitchen was consistently impressive and deserves mention. Our chef, Beemela, churned out delicious dish after delicious dish with a smile as sweet as her desserts.

After a fond farewell to Chitwan, and another hour-long crawl into Bharatpur, we flew back to
Kathmandu with a few days to visit the temples and make final gear purchases for our trek. We met cousins Max and Amanda at the airport before heading to our hotel. By no means conveniently located we booked our first few nights at the Hotel Vadjra. This is where I stayed three years ago. Our relationship was still in its infancy and I would Skype from the lobby or courtyard. I was immersed in a world Nathalia had studied and to return here together made the trip extra special.

We were so fortunate to have more family join us along our journey, cousin Amanda and her fiancé Max. Together, the four of us visited Swayambunath monkey temple and Durbar square before eating at the iconic Fire and Ice Pizza I had been craving for the last three years. Laundry was a hassle but did give us options regarding river water or an upgrade to clean water. Last order of business was renting sleeping bags – a new experience for us both. We were assured the bags were cleaned with wet wipes between uses and properly cleaned after each trekking season. Just our luck, it was the end of the season.

Our luck would change as Rajendra invited us into his home to discuss final trip details, meet our crew, and taste true Nepali hospitality. His wife cooked a delicious traditional meal and he kept our glasses full of local beer, wine, and Rakshi (liquor). We met Rajendra’s children and niece, and his brother and our guide, Rabindra. Rajendra was nice enough to share with us his slice of home and family life, and talked at length about Nepali life in the village and in Kathmandu. Lastly, we charted our course and covered final details and expectations of our trip ahead before a taxi home to pack and try to sleep despite the growing excitement.

Sure enough, as we returned to the hotel, the power was out, and we packed our bags by candlelight. It was ironic that in the big city we resorted to candlelight and, as we would find, the villages of the Himalayas all had solar power without interruptions.

Early morning a Land Cruiser drove us out of town and into the mountains. It seems inconceivable that it would take 6 hours to go just 118 km to Syrabrubesi. Nonetheless, we survived the seasonal road, more than a dozen army checkpoints, and an earthquake overnight. We could only assume this was an auspicious start.

The first leg of our trek was to climb through the Langtang Valley. From just 1470m at Syabrubesi we spent three days working our way through rhododendron forests along the rushing river and up to the mountain town of Kyanjin Gompa (3870m). Along the way we were delighted to find a “Western” toilet and even a hot shower. We learned a great deal about the flora and fauna of the Langtang area as well as the Tamang people from Tibet that settled the region. Hotel owners gave us insight into how the development of Nepal and Kathmandu affect their lives and the great lengths they go to in order to provide the best education for their children. Often times, parents send their children to Kathmandu to stay with family and attend school. Sometimes, they may only see their children once a year.

A day in the life of a trekker is quite simple. If you wish, you could be woken with “bed tea” to help coax you out of your sleeping bag. Pack your bag in time for breakfast. This may include anything from a boiled egg and chapati to fruit filled porridge. Hike for a couple hours before a tea stop and a couple more hours before lunch. A surprising array of choices awaits you at lunch and you decide on what your belly will hold for the day. After lunch, it’s on to your destination hotel offering accommodations ranging from simple rooms with squatter toilets to double beds with attached bathroom and solar shower. The food staple is dal bhat; curried vegetables and rice served with dahl, pickled vegetables and a homemade cracker. This is sure to give you the power to climb Everest.

Life is simple. Foot care is paramount and tending to sore muscles occupies evenings. The only screen you see is the small LCD of your camera. We check in with ourselves instead of online. We meet trekkers from around the world and share stories as well as the common draw to the mountains of Nepal. Our guide and porters give us insight into Nepali life then and now, religion, and family values. All the elements of life still thriving in a struggling country wedged between hostile powerhouses India and China.

Our porters – Mehk and Dhana – were brothers from a neighboring village of our guide, Rabindra. Their English improved day by day as well as our understanding of each other. No doubt, it is a foreign and unique relationship that took some getting used to, but I understand guides and porters rely on us for job security and we rely on them for safe and comfortable passage through the mountains. In fact, I cannot stress enough the importance of employing Nepali guides and porters. Trekking can be done without hired help; Anyone can read a map, and most tea house owners speak English well enough to work out accommodations, but our Nepali friends were worth their weight in gold. At every stop they’d wait on us hand-and-foot serving tea, biscuits, and hot Tang. They’d stoke the fire on request, and their unending smiles kept us cruising on the trail. Wages from one trek may supply a year’s worth of income to someone returning to the village for the low season, and those wages may support extended family as well. In exchange we get their hard work and they help us wipe the fog from our window looking into life in Nepal.

As we ascended the Langtang valley we gained elevation and earned new views each day. From Kyanjin Gompa we climbed to a lookout near Kyanjin Ri to marvel at mammoth surroundings. Langtang Lirung clearly towers over the region at 7246m and several glaciers can be seen from the panoramic lookout. The Langtang trek is an out-and-back journey, but before returning to our origin we turned South and climbed up into the next valley to the village of Thulo Syabru for Christmas Eve. We were gifted hot showers and even wifi to check in with the family and wish them a Merry Christmas.

At our ignorant insistence we found a shortcut that saved us an hour-and-a-half, although at the cost of drudging through thigh deep snow. We found ourselves a white Christmas after all. However, it wasn’t until hours later that we encountered probably the hardest quarter-mile of our trek as we endured a painstaking slog up the final approach to Laurebina Yak. We were temporarily relieved as we arrived at each tea house only to find they were deserted. This late in December the five tea houses rotate operation, and we eventually ambled into our shelter for the night.

It wasn’t too bad; The views now to took our breath away more than the altitude as we climbed to the village. The aches and pains paled in comparison to the awe inspiring peaks rising from the cloudy carpet. We had good company above the clouds including the Annapurnas, Manaslu (8156 m), Langtang Lirung, and the four peaks of the Ganesh Himal. Our hardest day yet was capped with the most beautiful sunset to date. Space around the stove was prime real estate for drying footwear and warming toes. Hot showers are seasonal here. The shower was a snow storage room this week.

Dinner at Gosainkund Lake was a United Nations of sorts. Trekkers from France, Italy, Latvia, and Japan joined us for a miserable and chilly meal. At 4380 m (14,370 feet), it was both a high point and a low point of the trip when you consider the abominable food, wood planks passed as beds, and a bathroom that I wouldn’t send vermin to die. No matter, the golden sunset transported us as our eyes scanned from mountain tops to the flat cloud covered abyss below.

The next morning came early as we aimed to clear the pass before the snow got too soft. Hiking past the ancient holy lake left indelible marks on us. Every August, thousands of pilgrims brave the monsoon to spend time at this holy water source. We topped off our water at the same spring that supposedly saved Shiva’s life from the ingested poison. It tasted glorious, especially with a little Tang.

Laurebina La (4610 m) is a pass worthy of the months of work and preparations dedicated to arriving there. As expected, a rock shrine draped in prayer flags faded by the sun. Unexpected was the overwhelming feelings that touched us there. We thanked the divine for our fortune of health and happiness, and the wonderful friends and family waiting for us at home. Riding high we began our descent, however, there’d be many more highs and lows before this trek was over.

For whatever reason, quality of food seemed to be inversely proportionate to altitude, and as we descended to Phedi we found the best tasting dal bhat we had in more than a week. With the sun still high in the sky we pressed on – ahead of schedule – and groped our way over Kasturee Danda (Musk Deer Ridge) and into Ghopte. This required efforts equivalent to interval training; scaling steep ascents up slick ice in the shade and even more slippery descents down the melted snow on the sunny sides.

Our efforts all proved worthwhile as we arrived in Ghopte with plenty of sunlight left to settle in. If sunsets couldn’t get any more beautiful we sipped masala tea above a sea of clouds undulating against the mountainside until the sun buried itself with a honeycomb glow in a bed of Nepali woolen clouds.

The following days led us back into the tree line and below the snow line. Now onto the Helambu trek we found a hot shower and western toilet, but with these amenities comes the influence of Kathmandu’s society. We began to see hastily discarded phone cards, western clothing styles, haircuts, and attitudes. We walked past schools, a health clinic, and even a safe haven for at-risk girls.

The last two days were not as straight forward as a topographical overview would suggest. We had anticipated two carefree downhill strolls back to Kathmandu. Instead, we found agonizing climbs up hand-carved steps and unremitting downhills that punished our already fatigued legs. The end of our trail was the start of the main road, and a short drive reacquainted with the city sights and sounds on our way back to downtown Kathamandu.

Re-entry into “civilization” would take time. Our weathered and chapped exteriors alone would take nurturing and care to restore their previously young and vibrant appearance. We chose the Hyatt Regency to aid our metamorphosis. Luxuries included on-demand hot water, 24-hour uninterrupted power, and spa amenities even though the real reason for our stay was the breakfast buffet.

As foreigners in a foreign land we celebrated New Year’s Eve quietly in a country that doesn’t follow the Gregorian calendar. We felt even more alone ringing in the new year without pause from the international television broadcast. Nepal’s offset time zone is on the quarter-hour, and as the clock struck midnight we were a tiny minority wishing each other, “Happy New Year.”

Our Nepali denouement requires return to Thamel for food, presents, and laundry. We weighed our laundry bag before leaving the hotel and made four stops before finding a proprietor with a scale remotely accurate. I would have gladly overpaid if it guaranteed fresh clean clothes. Tragically, we retrieved our clothes shortly before our departure, some still wet, and some had obviously not been washed.

Before leaving Nepal we did witness a special ceremony at Boudhanath, one of the largest Buddhist stupas in the world. It was a fond farewell to a country we had both grown a greater appreciation for, and where I was – three years ago – when we fell in love.

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And then there was Cambodia. Commonly listed on the Southeast Asian tour, but rarely focused upon. Cambodia has both impressive ancient history as well as heart-breaking and gut-wrenching recent history. We began with the former, in the North. We flew into Siem Reap at night. With barely perceivable lights from above, it didn’t look like we were flying into a city at all. Nonetheless we were greeted by our driver, and although we didn’t use it, we were equipped with wifi on the way to our hotel. What a strange juxtaposition; riding substandard roadways through a dark city in a bubble of hotspot wifi.

We booked late, and using reward points, and got stuck with 2 twin beds. Even telling them it was our honeymoon didn’t change our station. We were, however, delighted to see the room romantically decorated with honeymoon accoutrements. I bet even Ricky and Lucy shared a bed on their honeymoon.

On day one we wasted no time and headed straight to Angkor Thom and Bayon. This is a 12th century city of temples built to trump the famous Angkor Wat. The bas-reliefs demonstrate masterful carvings depicting both mythological and historical depictions. Hundreds of larger-than-life stone faces sitting high atop the towers presided over us now centuries later and still elicit awe as they did in the day of their construction. I’ve seen skyscrapers dominate a skyline and boats the size of cities, but these assemblies of art and architecture create their our category of superlatives. Next, we visited Ta Prohm, a temple inhabited by nature. The trees redecorated over the last several hundred years and the result is marvelous. Pictures hardly do justice.

We ended the day at Angkor Wat for sunset. The towers stand twice as tall in the reflecting pools, and the approach is a long stone causeway leading to the temple providing ample time to prepare for the immensity that lies ahead. From the location and orientation to the layout and dimensions, everything served a purpose. The tower’s steps rise as steep as 70 degrees to simulate the difficult climb to heaven. The grounds at dusk were eery.

There are many questions unanswered. With millions of visitors each year at USD$20 a day why does all the money used for restoration and improvement come from foreign aid? Why does a privately owned for-profit company rent Angkor Wat from Cambodia and manage the tourism? Government appointed guides offer no suitable answers, and locals displeased with the government offer only speculation of corruption.

US dollars arrived in Cambodia with American Troops in the 1970s. With such an influx of capitol the USD has remained in circulation there ever since. That still doesn’t explain how crisp new USD are dispensed from a Cambodian bank’s ATM. Prices are written in dollars and the local Riel is used as change.

Siem Riep offers ample dining options from market meals to a delicious and creative set menu at Mie just a short walk from our hotel. Beers are less than a dollar and even mains served on white linen are less than $8. The depth of poverty is immediately obvious. More bicycles fill the streets and more squatters line the alley ways than anywhere we’ve been.

Midway through our stay in Siem Reap we moved to the Moon Boutique Hotel; small and charming with phenomenal service. It was a few turns off of the main road, and difficult to find in the dark so they provided complimentary cell phone and tuk tuk service. We even witnessed Interview day, and our favorite applicant served us breakfast the next day.

There are several ways to travel cross country in Cambodia. From private car to jet plane. We settled on “luxury” bus to Phnom Penh. The bus was air conditioned and outfitted with nonfunctional outlets and wifi. However, we chose it for the wide screen windows and constant moving pictures of the Cambodian countryside. The division of wealth is just as obvious in the countryside as in the city. The highway is lined with tarps drying rice and other crops. Occasional oxen grazing and children playing. Subsistence farming dominates the landscape and each town is designated by a bank at its center. Dust covers just about everything in sight from the road’s edge. But the shiny facade and golden trim of the bank buildings stand out among the stilted thatch-roofed houses and rice fields. Locals stare at the bus as it speeds by and leaves a whiteout of dust in its wake. Rolling into Phnom Penh by bus gave us access to sights not seen between the airport and city center. We saw slums in the industrial districts, mega factories chocked full of sewing machines, and trucks shuttling workers in and out.

Cambodia is rapidly developing. Changes of infrastructure as well as attitudes of the people are easily discernible. With access to the Internet needs and tastes change rapidly. An old tuk tuk driver charges just $3 for a ride across town. He drives before any negotiations and accepts the fare with gratitude. A younger driver negotiates ahead of time. He asks for $10 for the same ride. He is hopeful this will earn him extra income but still accepts this as the start of negotiations.

We did meet one shining star among the dull and drabby drivers of the city. Soceth, aka David, wore his heart on his sleeve to gain our trust and fares. He spoke passionately with patriotism about a bright future for Cambodia; with sincerely and intention in earnest English; and answered all the questions we’d accumulated thus far.

David confirmed our suspicions about the factories outside of town. He said the level of depravity depends on the origin of the company. David explained the two different KTVs. One for families and one for men. He spoke freely about the contradictions between the written history and popular belief in Cambodia’s troubled past. We discussed wants, needs, worries, and happiness.

We have been traveling long enough to spot the scams. From, “Buy me milk for my baby,” to “That temple is closed today, I will take you somewhere else instead.” From outrageous non-metered fixed rate airport taxi rides to cut-rate tuk tuk rides albeit with strings attached. It’s amazing how consistent and repeated they are.

Frizz cafe offers Khmer cooking classes and we jumped at the chance to a half-day instructed by Soun. First, we were off to the market to learn (or review) the local produce and pick the freshest ingredients. This included fresh veggies and fruit, fish, every part of the pig or cow, frogs, century eggs, which are coated in a clay and set in the ground for a month to ferment, fresh coconut milk and fermented fish pastes. We then travelled to a third-story homesite overlooking the Russian embassy’s grounds and set up for cooking class. We made short work of deep fried taro spring rolls and fish amok. Soun’s easy instructions and consummate laugh and smile was sweeter than the dipping sauce.

More than 5 weeks in Asia and we are a little food fatigued. We have ventured from the local flavors now and then. Nothing has quite satisfied the expectation of foreign fare. Either the pizza has flavorless sauce or it’s made with embarrassingly little cheese. However, throughout the last 2 continents, no international food has been more disappointing than Mexican food. That is, until we found Alma Cafe. An authentic Mexican joint with homemade tortillas and local ingredients made this a popular spot.

Our last days were spent learning about the Khmer Rouge and visiting S-21, a former high school that was converted into a prison, torturing 20 thousand women, men and children.

We found a small yoga studio tucked in the busy streets. This class brought some serenity to us and we bowed our heads and said our goodbyes to Cambodia. Up next… The beautiful country of Nepal. The place that brought us closer, and understand each other on a deeper level, and now we experience it together!

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We were anxiously awaiting traveling to Northern Thailand not only because this would be the first time someone would join us on our travels but because the food was suppose to be spicier and more flavorful and we could catch a break from the heat. All of the above was waiting for us in Bangkok. We met up with my sister and brother in law at the swanky joint, The Banyan Tree hotel. Loren and I stood out among the professionally dressed guests around us.
Almost half way thru our journey around the globe we are looking a lil grungy. Loren’s hair is almost poney tail worthy and he has quite the beard. My hair is wild and long with lots of blonde coming thru, I presume from all the sun. We are both sun kissed coming from the south islands and our clothes are telling of all our adventures. This hotel was our Christmas present from Marcella and Matt and wow did it feel good to lie on a pillow top mattress and take a bath in clean water. The morning we checked in we hung out in the room enjoying the view from the 55th floor and the impeccable clean room. That evening we did the usual, wandered the streets to find a dinner joint. We landed ourselves a table at the Rice Bar to have some bibimbap and later wandered through the park back to the hotel.

The four of us ventured to see the temples Bangkok had to offer. The grand palace was as stated and the reclining Buddha was more impressive than anticipated. We travelled to China town to have “the best pad Thai in Bangkok,” or so they claimed . . . we disagreed. For second dinner, we had an epic dinner 62 floors up, at the open-air restaurant Vertigo of the Banyan Tree Hotel. It was surprisingly calm more than 600 ft up – above the smog – and with little wind to speak of.

The next morning we narrowly averted a well rehearsed scam involving an overly-friendly ambassador, a tuk-tuk driver, and a remote textile factory. Instead, we pulled the ripcord and abandoned ship just steps from a delectable French bakery – just perfect for coffee and breakfast.

A short flight brought us the Chiang Mai – capital of the North. Marcella found us a beautiful boutique hotel on the river call Sala Lanna. The rooms overlooked the river with claw-foot bathtubs prominently featured in the middle of the rooms. We sampled the delights of northern cuisine at a nearby riverside restaurant before heading to the Sunday night market in the old city.

The night market of Chiang Mai was similarly packed with tourists and hawkers, however it had a distinctly different feel than Bangkok or the islands of the South. The vendors are laid back, casual, and many times prices were marked – at least as a starting point for negotiations. We headed back to the hotel early each night to share stories and drinks on the balcony and throwing bones with our newly gifted set of dominoes.

We did as much research as we could to find a reputable camp offering a meaningful experience with the majestic asian elephants. Lampung Thai elephant conservatory provides medical treatment and care for sick elephants from all over Thailand and a retirement community for previously working animals formerly employed in logging, entertainment, and tourism.
They have an onsite hospital that manages Thailand’s first mobile clinic, treating needy elephants free of charge. Here we enjoyed watching the elephants bathe, partook in feeding them sugar cane and bananas. The nursery was particularly interesting with each pen labeled with descriptions of the mother or stepmother and baby. The babies were playful and their appetites seemed to even trump their size.

We chose to stay for the “show” which consisted of the elephants demonstrating their skills – mostly thru voice commands. They are beautiful and smart animals that seemed to enjoy the tasks that they completed. The relationship with their mahout seemed more than just trainer and beast. They seemed to have a special relationship and reliance on each other.

The next day we visited some of the many temples in and around the city. Highlights included a remote and dilapidated temple swallowed whole by the jungle and the mountain top Doi Suthep. There we received blessings from the eldest monk, “Happy, happy, happy. Lucky, lucky, lucky.” And “Happy marriage.” Atop the mountain, and in such a holy place, together we gave thanks for the opportunity to make such an epic journey. We gave thanks to have each other and such fortunate and loving families. We made prayer and gave offerings with friends and families in mind.

The next day we made our way to Chiang Rai. There is beautiful scenery across the plains although less dramatic landscapes than in the South. Although comparably smaller than Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai felt bustling and busy with foot traffic and market stalls. More and more great food with every meal.

Thursday, November 27th we embarked on a thanksgiving journey we’d never forget. We booked a hill tribe trek through Population and Community Development Association Chiang Rai (pdacr.org). This is one of the only community based initiatives that provides trekking tours to visit the hill tribes of Thailand. These treks allow tourists to be immersed in the culture of different native tribes of Thailand.
We started with an hour long boat ride on a wooden long tail boat on the Ako river. We passed small villages, huts made of straw, big stucco resorts, fisherman wading in the water catching their dinner and beautiful mountain ranges. It was quiet on the boat as we all took in the beauty around us.
Docking at a small village which led us to the elephant camp we saw a 200lb Python, this monster was as big around as Loren!
We arrived at the elephant terminal- climbed up a bamboo ladder to a platform made of bamboo to carefully and hesitantly climb aboard our elephant. The mahout sat along the neck of the elephant and often times would balance on the top of the elephants head. He carried a rope with one chain link attached at the end and a spike in his belt- we didn’t seem him use either of these tools, just a light pinch of the ear or voice command to get the elephant to do as he wanted. I was convinced that his feet were also used to communicate with the elephant, making small gestures alongside his ears and neck.

A note on elephant rides and elephant tourism in Thailand:
In 1988 there was a disastrous flood and series of huge landslides killing thousands of people and destroyed thousands of homes, mostly due to massive deforestation. In response, in 1989 Thailand completely outlawed all logging within its borders. In effect, these thousands of domesticated elephants went from being the breadwinners of many families’, to an unbearable burden to feed and maintain. Having been bred in captivity, elephant tourism became the only viable option for most of these magnificent creatures (the unlucky were sold to illegal Burmese logging operations). PDA uses the mahouts and their elephants as a mandatory part of their tours purposefully contributing to supplying the tribe members and their animals meaningful work and gives the elephants, which otherwise would be put to work in illegal logging operations or “elephant begging” syndicates in crowded cities, a more “humane” way to live their lives and stay near the jungle where they have access to plentiful food sources. The animals we saw and rode were healthy with no tell tale signs of chaffing from the baskets or chains. We did not see any mistreatment of the animals, beyond the fact that they were wearing padded baskets. The mahouts owned their animals and did not lease them therefore were more invested in the safety, health and happiness of the animal.

Gin, our guide, in her late 30’s originally from China, but grew up 2 hours outside of Chaing Rai in a village similar to the ones we were visiting. She got out and into the city as a teenager and studied hospitality and tourism at the university where she learned English. She was knowledgable about all the plants, medicinal herbs, and local customs.

She widdeled bamboo walking sticks for all of us to ward off dogs, snakes or anything else the jungle might be hiding. The trail was so narrow the palms were rubbing against your body on either side for 3 hours straight. The thicket of the green cover was broken now and then by small bamboo forests. The steep valley walls were dotted with planted pineapple, banana trees and coffee.

We arrived intact at the Akha Village. One dirt road flanked by a row of houses, and further surrounded by pig pens and cow sheds. Chickens, dogs, even pigs roamed free throughout the day, and children constantly played in the street. The older women wore traditional head dresses and lower leg coverings. One woman, we later dubbed “Gandma,” took particular interest in Matt and Loren’s beards. She told us she’s had 10 children. As each villager passed, she would point and claim them as her child. Each interaction always ended with an opportunity to purchase traditionally styled handicrafts.

Shortly after we acclimated ourselves to our surroundings, the sun began to set, and for a short while, the short street was alive with women gossiping, men smoking, and children playing. Puppies were commonplace and their cuteness universal. Without streetlights, only a small fire lit the street and the crowd dispersed little by little.

Dinner was simple and filling; Boiled vegetables and rice to refill the reserves for more trekking in the morning. Our gracious hosts even gave us a taste of Thai whisky; A fitting nightcap before retiring to our thatched roof bamboo huts.
The bathroom was a cement room, to my surprise there was a real porcelain toilet and spigot for a shower. The mattress was hard, and the mosquito net kept us protected from whatever might crawl on us thru the night. I slept lightly throughout the night; between the roosters and the thoughts of gratitude bubbling in my mind. Thankful for a hardworking father and a loving mother that always made sure a roof was over our head and we had clean clothes and fresh food. Gratitude for the opportunities to pursue whatever school or vocational training I wished. Thankful for a hardworking husband that is conscious about how his decisions affect the both of us, how lucky we are that we are experiencing this and it’s not our daily reality.

I often reflect on my desire to learn how the locals live, what they eat and how they think. I was fortunate with this opportunity to absorb all of this except their thinking of course…because of the language barrier.
The next morning we took a “short walk” which means 2 1/2 hours here 😉 to the waterfall where our guide and one of the men from the village, Mr. Aba, made us a bamboo lunch. Mr. Aba cut down bamboo as we walked to make cups, chopsticks, pots and serving dishes. Gin packed rice into a thin bamboo stick and placed it in the fire, the bamboo pots were filled with water for soup and tea.

Back in Chiang Rai we showered, ate, and spent the night reflecting on such a physically and mentally engaging experience. Our remaining time in Thailand flew by with flashes of the night market, the contemporary white temple, we said our goodbyes to Matt and Marcella and continued on to Cambodia.

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