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Italy, Switzerland and Captiva Island: Homemade pasta, amazing wine, Swiss chocolate, and turquoise water

June 30, 2011

Hello from Captiva Island, Florida! Clay and I safely returned to the States last Friday night (June 24th) after a whirlwind of traveling on trains, planes, and cars. We must admit — there is nothing quite like home.

Italy offered the perfect combination of boisterous, kind-hearted people, scrumptious food, to-die-for wine, and hilly, green landscapes, which met all of our idealistic, romantic expectations for it. After overnight flights from Mumbai to Zurich to Rome, we were thrilled to arrive in a lively city with so much history. With an intent to return to Rome, we knew we could only fit so much in our less-than-24-hour stay. We took a rather expensive taxi from the airport to our beautiful hotel (Hotel Villa Duse) in the north side of Rome. After showering off our travel dirt, we headed out for a quick pizza lunch, a visit to the truly colossal Colosseum and a tour of the Roman Forum. Clay and I soaked in the views and history while we listened to Rick Steve’s free “tour” on my iPhone. (From my perspective, this is a great way to save money, yet learn some of the history. I am sure there are also other similar options available.) After the Roman Forum area, we booked it over to the Pantheon, grabbed our first taste of gelato, which quickly got us addicted… yes, addicted! We didn’t go another day without it while in Italy. Then, we taxied across the city to the Borghese Gallery. The Gallery was our first formal view of paintings and statues in Italy. After starting our walk through the Gallery, we soon realized we should have invested in the 5 euro audio tour. Nonetheless, we tried to appreciate the art as much as possible with the minimal knowledge provided by brief handouts in each room. Afterward, we walked through the gardens nearby, saw the Spanish Steps, then ate dinner at a local place on a side street. Dinner seemed touristy and mainstream. Next time we decided we would search harder for a “ma and pa” place on a side street. Homemade pasta and tiramisu? Mmm.

At the Colesseo

Rome's Arch of Titus

Hotel Villa Duse's delicious breakfast... and Nutella!

The next morning we took a train to Florence. We loved seeing the countryside on the 3-hour ride and were delighted when we arrived in the smaller, more walkable town of Florence. We stayed at a “hotel” called Casa Rabatti — it’s actually the home of a woman, Marcella, about my grandmother’s age who spoke minimal English but managed to thoroughly communicate all her excitement and joy about our arrival and stay. I didn’t do quite as good of a job at communicating my thoughts. She asked if we were on our honeymoon, and I smiled and slowly said, “Actually, we have been married 1 year, but this is like my second honeymoon!” She looked at me confused and said,”Oh, complicado.” So… I think she thinks I have been married twice, or am married to two people, or something. Ahh, if only I could remember all that Italian I learned in high school! Anyhow, we loved Florence. We soaked in all the art, architecture, and lovely culture. We enjoyed being next to the central market where we got breakfast and lunch one day. We shopped and explored and ate tons of gelato. It was fabulous.

Arriving in the train station in Florence

Delicious lunch in Florence... and 1 liter of wine!

At the central market in Florence

In front of the Duomo in Florence

Could not resist -- a bride and groom we saw in Florence (image processed through "Cross Process")

"Hiking" up the 414 steps of the Duomo Dome -- not quite as intense as Kala Pattar!

On top of the Duomo Dome

The next day we rented a car in Florence to drive to Montepulciano, a small town in the south of Tuscany. Let’s just say renting a car and driving in Florence is not nearly as simple as one might assume. They have these things called, “Z.T.L’s” — zone traffico limitado, or something like that. Anyhow, you are not supposed to enter these zones because they are private or historical areas. There are discrete cameras situated just right to photograph your license plate if you enter the zones. Apparently, you get a 90 euro ticket if you enter them. Well, somehow, we kept getting stuck on one-way streets or roundabouts that forced us to enter these zones. At one point, we found ourselves circling a roundabout over and over trying to decide what to do because all the exits had Z.T.L. signs. Ahh! Anyhow, hopefully we don’t receive too many tickets in the mail. Oh dear. Aside from that, it was fun driving our small Citroen through Tuscany to the town. We arrived at our agriturismo, Le Caggliole, and quickly fell in love with Montepulciano. It is exactly what you picture when you think of Tuscany — or at least what I have always imagined. Narrow, cobblestone streets. Vineyards everywhere. Local shops and old buildings. Kind, bubbly people. Gorgeous sunsets. Ah! The next day, we rented bikes and road through the hilly countryside to Pienza where we grabbed lunch. So fun. Other than realizing that 12 km seems much farther when there are constant hills, no road shoulders, and speeding cars and you’re on a 7-speed hybrid bike… we thought the ride was perfect. Highly recommended. We participated in Montepulciano’s wine festival that night (5 glasses of local Vino Nobile, a yummy red wine + 5 glasses of local Prosecco — like Champagne or bubbly wine) and had a great Italian pizza dinner!

Clay driving the Citroen (before we entered the Z.T.L.'s)

Biking from Montepulciano to Pienza

Biking along the hillside

In Pienza

Wine festival in Montepulciano

Street in Montepulciano

More of Montepulciano

Saying goodbye to such a lovely town!

After Montepulciano, we drove to La Spezia to grab the train to Cinque Terre (Vernazza, the fourth town, in particular). The drive took a few hours longer than expected when we realized that we had no GPS and our Google Map-printed directions were less than adequate. And so the adventures continued… Cinque Terre provided another much appreciated relaxing, quaint stay. Our hotel (L’Eremo) sat on a hill above Vernazza. It overlooked the town, and we arrived just in time to see the sun setting over the sea and mountains. Gorgeous. The next day we hiked through the 5 (cinque) towns stopping along the way to tour the streets, grab lunch and enjoy the beaches. I had one of my most memorable meals in Riomaggiore — sauteed swordfish, salad and wine. In Monterosso, we sunbathed for two hours on the beach and found ourselves next to French, topless teenage girls! Oh, Italian beaches. Clay and I look forward to returning to Cinque Terre someday (soon, hopefully). Our time was far too short.

Our first night in Vernazza (the town is behind us)

Pizza dinner at the harbor in Vernazza

Sunset at the harbor during dinner time

Beginning our hike through the towns of Cinque Terre

Hiking in Corniglia (image processed in "Cross Process")

Looking down at the sea along our hike

Manarola (image processed in "Cross Process")

Hiking toward Riomaggiore

The beach at Monterosso

Umbrellas at Monterosso

View of Vernazza on our hike back from Monterosso

Love birds...

From Cinque Terre, we took the train to La Spezia, the nearby “metropolitan” town. While we had reservations at a hotel, somehow the sketchy reception office was closed. Later attempts to call the hotel on a pay phone also proved fruitless. So, we found ourselves roaming through the town with all our luggage and, after 30-minutes or so, we saw our first hotel where we bargained for a room. The next morning we took the 5:02am train from La Spezia to Milan to Zurich. We arrived in Zurich around 1:30pm and quickly began exploring the city. We discovered that Zurich is perhaps the most expensive place we have ever been (let’s just say lunch at a casual cafe, which included a salad, a sandwich, and 2 drinks, was $70 USD…). We shopped a little for Swiss chocolate, wandered the streets, people watched, and enjoyed a fabulous dinner. At around 11pm, we took the train to the Zurich airport, found a couch at the closed Starbucks in the airport, and “slept” until we had to board our plane at 5am. While we saved money, sleeping in the airport was quite memorable. We were serenaded all night by music artists including Justin Bieber, Nora Jones and Jack Johnson through the speakers that rested directly above our heads. We were accompanied by homeless men on the neighboring couches. We were awakened by loud machines cleaning the tile floors for about 2 hours. And we were constantly keeping a peeping eye to make sure our luggage remained untouched and safe. Boarding that plane felt good, and thoughts of home seemed even better!

Beautiful Zurich

Clay standing in front of the Grossmunster

After making it through customs in Miami and after traveling for over 45 hours, we soon discovered our flight out of Miami to Fort Myers had been canceled — and apparently it had been canceled for 3 months, yet we did not know. Strange. It was 1:30 pm in Miami, and the next flight out wasn’t until 9 pm. So, with adrenaline inspiring us to get to Captiva Island as quickly as possible, we rented a car and drove across the state of Florida along Alligator Ally. It was a gorgeous drive through the Everglades, and in a state of tired delirium all we could do was laugh. We arrived at 7:30 pm in Captiva and were welcomed by a beautiful sunset, loving family and relaxation. It has been amazing.

Thanks for reading the blog during our trip! I apologize we did not have the opportunity to update it as often as we had anticipated. Look for more posts. Now that we are in the States, we hope to post more pictures and add some videos of our excursions. Thanks for all your comments. We have appreciated them so much.

India in 8 days

June 22, 2011

Guest writer:  Clay Cowherd

Well, here we are in beautiful Italy enjoying great food and wine and Cinque Terre’s wonderful, hillside scenery.  God has continually blessed us on our adventures abroad, and each day has been phenomenal from the day we set sail.  The task of the moment is to catch you up on our whirlwind tour of India.  A country approximately one-third the land mass of the U.S., we miraculously managed to see many of the sites and cities of the northern half.  After arriving in New Delhi, we met up with our Australian friends, Nick and Ashlea, and tasted India’s best in a high-rise rotating restaurant.  Our first meal was phenomenal, one of the best (naan, veg and lamb curries, “cottage cheese”, etc.).  The Hotel Palace Heights was also amazing, but we only slept a bit before waking up early to catch a train to Agra to visit the shockingly large Taj Mahal.  A tomb for an emperor’s wife, the structure is hard to describe in words – see pictures!!

It rained lightly while we visited to the Taj, which made for some relatively gross puddles outside the palace, but the grounds of the Taj were immaculate and the drizzle helped cool us off – far better than 115 degrees!  One surprising experience that began in Agra, but was pervasive throughout our time in India, was being asked to be in photos with the locals and Indian tourists.  Sure, it feels good to be a celebrity, but it is a curious thing to be on the mantles of random families across the world – simply for accomplishing our birth from european descent.  There were so few western tourists, and SO many Indians, that we stood out like 9-foot tall Ewoks from the planet Endor.

Peaking through at one of the World's most famous structures

Five stunning characters

Rachael in Taj gear

One of many "celebrity" pics forever framed in India somewhereI mean... it's pretty exciting

New friends at the Agra Fort

In addition to the spectacular Taj, we visited two forts, centuries old and unique to the region – our first days in India were delivering heavy doses of history.  The train station, however, delivered a dose of nausea.  Rats are not cool.  Flying ants, also uncool.  Cows eating trash on train platforms, just weird.  Feces drained from train cars directly onto the tracks, unpleasant.  Thousands of strange people (95% middle-aged men), walking and pushing as if they were driving rickshaws in a crowded round-a-bout… overwhelming.  Nonetheless, we survived our first train, with first class providing an acceptable ride.

Another wonderful night in Delhi preceded our 24-hour stint in Varanasi – an over-the-top cultural experience that rivaled any of my life here before.  We flew in to this small, east-central city that serves as one of the, if not the most important, Hindu holy cities.  Thousands upon thousands of Indian tourists arrive by over-capacity greyhound buses (with luggage strapped on top) for a stay in Varanasi.  Due to the holy nature of this city on the shore of the Ganges River, many deceased Hindus are brought to Varanasi (atop vehicles) for proper burning\burial in the sacred river.  At both sunrise and sunset, we witnessed many rituals first-hand as we coasted along the slowly moving river in a 14′ boat with Nick & Ashlea, our guide and a boatman.  This river amazingly serves many purposes – a burial site, a holy bathing place and a water source, among others.  Varanasi was, in a word, extraordinary – while I hope the pictures explain, I know they cannot begin to describe the true scene, spectacle and emotions within.

Arrival in Varanasi... not Hawaii

This was right before he opened his mouth, hissed at us and nearly leapt onto my face

View of the Ganges from above

Stumbled on these cute kids in old town Varanasi

Our navigator on the Ganges

View of daily Hindu ceremony for the dead

Not much space in the bathtub at sunrise

A long flight to the west led us to Jaipur, the Gem town of north India.  With only a day and a half to explore it, we did not give Jaipur a fair chance to share its glory.  We did however, visit another colorful fort and nearly caught an elephant ride – if not for the heat (the animals were overheating and needed a bath…for the rest of the day).  We also took a “walking tour” per Nick’s Lonely Planet book, which was more of a dusty meandering, heat-stroke inducing, dehydration tour of an inland Indian hub (read – traffic, markets, bazaars, and thousands of salesman encouraging you to buy at least a scarf, 2 pairs of shoes and a musical instrument).

Tourists at a fort in Jaipur

More fort

Udaipur, an overnight train south of Jaipur, was phenomenal.  One of only a few spots where we planned 2 or more nights, we could have stayed longer.  The Venice of the East (as referenced by Lonely Planet), is on the steep banks of Lake Pichola and overlooks the Lake Palace – made famous by James Bond and Octopussy.  We planned on dinner at the palace, but it has become an exclusive 5-star resort and does not allow visitors to set foot on the island without a 400-dollar reservation.  Sad.  Regardless, we had spectacular waterfront breezes and views, great Indian food and memorable encounters with friendly locals.  On our second day, we enjoyed a 5-hour cooking class, followed by a feast of Rachael’s labors.  12 dishes were taught by Shashi, a widow turned capitalist who charges what seems like a meager 10 dollar/person fee (includes food), but is a local fortune, and she is always jam-packed.

Great grub at The Whistling Teal

Lake Palace at Sunset (view from our hotel Veranda)

Lake Palace lights

Shashi explaining Indian cuisine preparation

Part of the feast

On our way to Italy, we wanted a day in Mumbai to finish off the tour of our newfound head-waggling friend named India.  Arriving at the airport, we were surprised to learn that the domestic strip was about 20 miles from the international terminal.  A chaotic taxi-ride later, we were also a bit surprised that we were not allowed to enter the international terminal to leave our bags for the day, despite the “left luggage” counter being in eye-sight of the machine-gun guarded entryway.  An hour later and some dread about our baggage security, we took a cab into the Colaba district known for the Gateway of India and the nearby 5-star Taj Mahal Hotel.  A bit of rain and many more perky shoulder-tapping salesman nearly pushed us over the edge, but we loved our trip too much to change attitude now.  We enjoyed Mumbai mostly from the luxurious safe haven of the Taj Hotel.  Milkshakes in the afternoon and world-class Sushi in the evening, prepared by an Iron Chef apprentice, were truly amazing.

Try getting a picture of just you in front of the Gateway... I dare you

This glimpse into the 8-day adventure couldn’t possibly describe the Indian experience – incredible as it was, it is truly one that must be seen, heard, felt and smelled first-hand.  Italy to come….


Trek (3 of 3): Out of Thin Air

June 14, 2011

Hello from Udaipur, India — a small town in the northwest of India. I apologize for the lack of blog posts of late. Let’s just say access to a computer has been scarce. India is extraordinary, and Clay and I plan to post pictures and stories in the next day or two about our stay.

Now, to finish telling you about our trekking adventures in Nepal…

Thursday, June 2:  Rest day in Gokyo

Our bodies desperately needed a reprieve from hiking and moving. So, on Thursday, we sat by a yak dung-fueled stove and read our books, played cards, and looked at the turquoise lake surrounded by snow-capped mountains that enveloped our lodge’s common room. We managed to escape the room a few times to dip our toes in the lake’s icy water and to buy some HobbNobs — oat cookies that satisfied our absurd craving for fatty, unhealthy and calorie-dense foods.

Namaste Lodge's common room in Gokyo where we spent most of our rest day. See the yak dung burning stove?!

View of Dudh Pokari (lake below our lodge)

Friday, June 3: Gokyo Ri (5357m), then Gokyo to Phortse Thenga

On Friday, after our bodies had rejuvenated themselves during our rest day, we woke up at 3:40am to summit Gokyo Ri. The trail started about 100m from our lodge, so we put on our headlamps (until the sunrise around 4:45am) and started the 580m vertical ascent up the mountain. I had been told it would be harder than Kala Pattar… so you can imagine my anticipation in beginning the trek. The air was just as thin here (5357m summit) and the elevation gain even greater than for Kala Pattar. Fortunately, Clay and I were pleasantly surprised that the ascent was much easier than expected. It took about 1 hour 30 minutes to reach the summit along a rocky, switchback-filled trail. We were excited for the views because we were told the summit offered views only a balloonist can  see. From Gokyo Ri, we stood further away from Mount Everest and its large neighbor, Loptse, which allowed us to have a broader perspective of the enormous stretch of Himalayan mountains.

When we reached the top, the views were stunning. Honestly, it felt like we were in an airplane. We were high above the clouds, which soon started rolling in over the vast glacier below. The land became covered with clouds and all we could see were the tall mountains poking through the cotton clouds as they pierced a bright blue sky. Spectacular.

After our descent from Gokyo Ri, we packed our bags, grabbed breakfast and began an 8 hour descent to Phortse Thenga. Phortse Thenga is a small town situated along the milky turquoise Dudh Kosi river. We stayed at a quaint, peaceful lodge called the River Resort. We were the only guests and enjoyed talking with the owners of the lodge — the man was a Sherpa who had previously climbed to Everest’s summit.

View of Dudh Pokari from our hike up to Gokyo Ri at 4:30am

On the summit of Gokyo Ri with our friends we met along -- Naria from Spain and Nikhil from India

Another summit celebration. Snickers anyone? (Not exactly nutritious...but delicious!)

Himalayas behind Clay with Everest in the background

Clouds rolling over the glacier with Himalayas peeping through

Salim and us with Everest directly behind us (the snowy one above Clay's head)

Clay on our trek down to Phortse Thenga

Overlooking our descent

Teenage yak missing a horn at the River Resort in Phortse Thenga

Saturday, June 4: Phortse Thenga to Namche Bazar

The following morning, we made a steep ascent to the town of Mong before we slowly descended to Namche Bazar. As the air became thicker, Clay and I both noticed our breathing improved and our energy peaked. Suddenly, a 400m ascent seemed simple. Ahh! Reaching Namche practically felt like home. It offered the comforts we missed on top of the mountain — warm air, bakeries, crowds, cheaper food, etc. Oh, Namche. We decided to indulge and have our Saturday night usual — pizza and beer. This was our first beer on the mountain. While not exactly cold, it was delicious. The yak cheese pizza was also a unique change from dal bhat. (Not as good as our homemade usual, but wonderful nonetheless.)

Everest beer and yak cheese pizza in Namche

Sunday, June 5: Namche Bazar to Lukla

We trekked a long day down to Lukla. It took about 7 hours with a 1-hour lunch break in Phakding. With the new energy gained from fully oxygenated air and our eagerness to reach Lukla, we trekked fast. Salim kept laughing and asked us to slow down.

Reaching Lukla brought us one day closer to a shower. It was bittersweet. We were sad to be ending our trek, but excited about the days to come. Salim wanted to celebrate our descent and share a local tradition with us. That night, he took us to a family’s home in Lukla. We walked in and a woman in her mid-thirties welcomed us to sit at a rectangle table in the dark room where a fire rested under a steaming teapot. Salim exchanged some words with her. In a few minutes, we had metal cups full of fermented red millet and hot water sitting in front of us. This is the local beer called Tongba. It tasted like a hot, light beer minus the carbonation. It was good, but different. She served us a snack of chili-spiced buffalo that she had prepared in about 5 minutes. It was delicious. This time is one of the moments I cherish most. Clay and I loved being a part of the local culture. The Nepali people are so gracious, and it meant a lot to be welcomed into their homes.

Our arrival in Lukla... there is a beautiful arch above our heads, somehow it didn't make it into the picture. Just imagine.

Monday, June 6: Lukla to Kathmandu

A day before we were supposed to fly out of Lukla, all the flights had been canceled because of the clouds. Clay and I were praying our prop plane would make it out at 7am on the morning of the 6th. We eagerly waited at the two-room, chaotic Lukla airport. When we saw the first plane land on the 12% incline runway everyone in the airport seemed to cheer with excitement. We were hoping clouds wouldn’t stall our take off, so it was a huge relief when we boarded the tiny plane with about 8 other passengers and 20 enormous bags of post-Everest summit materials. Landing in Kathmandu felt even better.

I spent 2 hours doing laundry in the shower of our bathroom in Kathmandu. Let’s just say I have a whole new appreciation for washing machines and dryers. It felt good to see that dirt colored water swirl down that drain with each wash and rinse. Taking a shower was unforgettable. Clay and I each spent 45 minutes washing. Man, oh man.

View of the Lukla runway from our lodge in Lukla -- short and steep

Tuesday, June 7: Kathmandu

On our last day in Kathmandu, we visited Salim and his friends at his office. We finished our gift shopping and ate at some great local restaurants. Oh to be clean again.

Saying goodbye to our favorite spot in Thamel. We loved the Weizen Bakery -- fabulous pastries.

Wednesday, June 8: Kathmandu to New Delhi

Saying goodbye to Kathmandu was sad. Salim and the hotel blessed our journey and waved as we left in our taxi. Driving through Thamel and to the airport presented all the usual scenes of Kathmandu. So, off we flew to New Delhi…

Trek (2 of 3): Top of the World

June 8, 2011

Tuesday, May 31:  Kala Pattar (5550m), then Gorak Shep (5160m) to Dzonglha (4830m)

Trekking to the summit of Kala Pattar, a mountain near Gorak Shep, was the hardest thing I have ever physically done in my life. I developed a single-track mind, “Step… step… step…” That was all I could think.  I equate it to this —  imagine running a marathon (which I can relate to), finishing at 3:40am when you are completely exhausted, not eating anything after the race, then trekking straight up a mountain for 1 hour 20 minutes with half of the oxygen you had at sea level. Yep, that’s pretty much what it felt like to me.

I think the prior non-stop days of trekking, as well as  my lack of full acclimatization, made me especially exhausted during this trek. I felt like giving up in the first 15 minutes, but mentally convinced my body to step, step, step. It was well worth it too. After what seemed like an eternity, we arrived at the summit — a little over 5550 m or around 18,200 feet. The air was cool, the wind gentle, and the sky cloudy. We waited for about 30 minutes for the sun to rise (around 5:30am). As it rose, the warmth burned off the clouds that masked the mountains. Surrounding us, we found a 360 degree view of the Himalayas. There are no ways to articulate these images. (Some day, you should come see it for yourself.) Although we stood some 3000 meters below Everest, it felt like we were on top of the world.

For two hours, we sat and simply watched the mountains. The sun slowly rose higher and higher illuminating the snow caps and bringing the entire landscape to life. Each moment seemed to define the mountains in more detail. I did not want to leave. (The pictures cannot fully capture the reality of this scene, but I hope you get a glimpse nonetheless.)

After descending from Kala Pattar, we grabbed a quick breakfast in Gorak Shep and let our knees and muscles rest, then we started a long day of trekking to Dzonglha. The trek to Dzonglha brought us to a 1-2 foot wide trail that dropped off the edge of a steep mountain. For about an hour as we trekked this edge, I tried not to look left knowing my fear would render me immobile. But, every now and again, I stopped and looked around because the views were amazing… near green mountains, far snow covered mountains, and lakes, rock slides, and such all around.  We trekked onward until we reached Dzonglha around 4 pm. Dzonglha is a super small village with only one lodge open. It is pretty much a rest stop for those planning to cross Cho La Pass. I filled up on dal bhat, then went to bed around 7pm (our usual, because when the sun goes down and the lights go off — or your just don’t have any lights to turn on — you go to sleep)! At midnight, I woke up to pee and ran outside where the “toilet” was. It was snowing… at first, I didn’t think anything of it. However, when we woke up at 3:45 am to start our trek over Cho La Pass, I remembered that snow can complicate our route over the Pass, so I prayed that the snow would not hinder our trek “through” the mountains.

The face tells it all... right after our summit of Kala Pattar.

On top of Kala Pattar -- Mount Everest is above our heads

The summit of Kala Pattar (with Pumori and prayer flags to the right)

Mount Everest in a fog of clouds

Ama Dablam (right) and other mountains from Kala Pattar

The three of us on Kala Pattar

View of the Himalayas from Kala Pattar... see the little people toward the bottom of the photo?!

On the way to Dzonglha from Gorak Shep

Wednesday, June 1: Dzonglha (4830m) to Cho La Pass (5420m) to Gokyo

In Gorak Shep, we had a met a group of 5 trekkers (1 from Spain, 2 from the States, 1 from India, and 1 from  Belgium) who were planning to go over the Pass, but didn’t want to do it without a guide. We invited them to join us during our trek because we had a guide. They, along with a couple we met in Dzonglha from Lithuania, joined us bright and early to cross Cho La.

The first hour of the trek was hard for me. While it was mostly on flat ground, I found that my muscles were tired and weak. As we trekked upward, the lack of oxygen seemed to take an additional toll on my body. Mental stamina was all I had left. The further we ascended, the more snow surrounded us. The night’s snowfall soon presented its challenges. We reached a tall scramble of boulders that comprised the first part of the pass. Climbing with all fours, we slowly moved upward trying to avoid slipping off or under a boulder. We lost the trail at one point due to the snow, but after about 1 hour, we made it to the top of the wall. Exhausted, we rested. Then, we found ourselves trekking through an untouched snowfield with glaciers and crevasses to our right and steep walls of snow to our left. We crossed this seemingly endless field  of glistening snow and reached the end of the pass, where we encountered a steep descent full of ice, snow, and boulders. It seemed formidable. However, we had no options but to trek down. This is when God and I had a several talks. I wished I had crampons or an ice ax at the very least… but the tread of my boots and the strength of my trekking poles had to suffice this time. For about 1 hour 30 minutes, I used the remaining energy I had to dig my heels into the snow and brace myself during the descent. It was hard. Really hard. It seemed like a huge weight (boulder) was lifted off my shoulder when we finally reached flat ground. Ahh…

We trekked on for another 2 hours to Dragnag where we took a lunch break. After 7 hours 30 minutes of trekking, our bodies needed this reprieve more than anything. Finally, we gained the strength to continue on to Gokyo, where we would stay the night. For 2 more hours, we trekked over the ginormous Ngozumpa Glacier covered with rocks, the occasional turquoise lake, and thick ice walls of the glacier peeping through. You could hear loud cracking and splashes as chunks of ice broke off the glacier falling into the frigid lakes below. I have never seen or heard anything like this before.

We arrived in Gokyo, and felt rewarded after the long day by the beautiful lake (Dudh Pokhari) that rested at the base of the village and was surrounded by snowy Himalayas. It was quiet, peaceful, and exactly what we needed.

Around 4am...trekking toward Cho La Pass through the newly fallen snow

View of the mountains as the sun rises during our trek over Cho La

At the top of the first scramble of boulders. We made it!

Clay crossing the snow field between the Pass

At the end of the Pass -- before we began our descent down the ice covered boulders

Behind us is the wall of boulders we descended -- the picture doesn't do it justice

The Ngozumpa Glacier we crossed on our way to Gokyo

Notice the glacier lakes behind us. Almost to Gokyo now.

Tired, but glad to have arrived in Gokyo after a long day. You can see the town and lake behind us.

To be continued…

Trek (1 of 3): From the Base to Everest Base Camp

June 7, 2011

We are back in Kathmandu, showered, relaxed, and eager to share our stories and pictures with you. We took over 1500 pictures and have unending adventures to tell, so I am going to write a series of three blogs in an attempt not to overwhelm you. (Sorry for not posting sooner, I quickly found that the Internet was rare, extremely slow and/or expensive on the mountain… so I waited to return to Kathmandu to update the blog.)

Monday, May 23:  Kathmandu to Lukla (by plane); Lukla (2800m) to Phakding (2610m) (by foot)

I cannot recall a time when I was scared to fly. Traveling by plane is something I have been intrigued by since I was a child. (The inner child in me has always wanted to fly, so maybe that explains a bit of the intrigue?) Well, things changed when  I boarded the 18-passenger, twin-engine prop-plane for a 35-minute flight from Kathmandu to Lukla. Suddenly, I could visualize the news headings, “Plane Crash in Nepal Himalayas, 18 Die,” or “Two American Trekkers Met Their Fate in the Nepal Himalayas,” or…

“Oh stop,” I convinced myself. I boarded the plane and found myself nervously laughing and cracking jokes with the other passengers, including Clay (who sat in the one seat  ‘across’ the aisle from me) and Salim, our guide, who sat in front of me. Fortunately, other than a few turbulence bumps, the flight was uneventful, the views of the Himalayan mountains were astounding, and the pilots faithfully landed the plane on the 12% incline, 200-yard runway. Amazing. At last, the news headings were just a figment of my imagination and off we went to start our first day’s trek from Lukla to Phakding.

The view of the Himalayas from my window on the plane

Getting off the plane in Lukla

Our trek to Phakding was mostly downhill and adapted us well to the rocky terrain of the region, the many extensive suspension bridges over the Dudh Kosi (“milk river”), and the quick “pass-throughs” of the small villages along the way. The views consisted of lush green mountains, trees and shrubs, and lots of wildlife — all of which I took for granted at this time but would later envy and yearn for when the elevation of 4000 m made these things a rarity.  We arrived in Phakding in time for lunch, so I enjoyed my first meal of the Nepali staple, dal bhat (rice, lentil soup, and curried vegetables).  Our stay in the local lodge was cool, quiet, and peaceful.

On our way to Phakding

Trekking through a village on the way to Phakding; notice the beautiful colors and the stupa in the distance!

Tuesday, May 24: Phakding (2610m) to Namche Bazar (3420m)

Yet another gorgeous day of trekking. This trek was a bit more challenging than yesterday’s, but again, only prepared us for the days ahead. We stopped in a small town called, Benkar, to grab tea along the way. In my journal I wrote, “A woman my grandmother’s age kindly greeted us at a lodge in an isolated place along the trail. We sat peacefully drinking black tea and looking at our map. Life couldn’t get better than this.” We soon ascended to Namche and met a couple from Thailand along the way. They were trekking in celebration of their 50th wedding anniversary. I hope I am doing this for my 50th anniversary! Compared to the other villages, Namche is a booming metropolis. Clay and I were excited to spend our “rest” day here to trek a side hike and to visit the many shops, bakeries, lodges, etc.

Clay and Salim checking out the map during our tea break in Benkar

Clay entering Namche Bazar

View of Namche Bazar from our lodge (Everest Hotel)

Wednesday, May 25: Acclimatization day in Namche Bazar

Today we got our first glimpse of Mount Everest. Salim took us to two different view points. The first, a national park reserve area, was a point where we could see Everest resting behind nearer, seemingly taller mountains. The second point was at the top of a peak where we had a much clearer view of Everest. We hiked up a steep path for about 45-minutes and stopped along the way at Shyangboche, a tiny “airport” where we got to see a helicopter land and take off. This view of Everest aroused feelings in me that perhaps many people get on their first sighting of the Mountain — awe, amazement, and a desire to see more.

After the hike, we were told by some other trekkers of a showing of the dramatized film version of “Into Thin Air” at a local pub called “Liquid Bar.” We dropped in at 3pm to watch the movie. Afterward, we both agreed that at first the film established an indescribable yearning to climb the Mountain. However, the deaths and challenges faced on the Mountain later weakened this desire. Interesting to discuss and contemplate.

Our first view of Everest -- the mountain directly to the left of Clay's head looming in the background

Thursday, May 26: Namche Bazar (3420m) to Tengboche (3870m)

During our trek from Namche to Tengboche, we noticed our first dramatic change in temperature and oxygen level. It quickly became much cooler, and the climb up to the small village took our breath away. I started to think, “Man, I am out of shape.” In Tengboche, we  sequestered ourselves around the small wood-burning stove in the lodge’s common room, but also spent a few hours to explore the town, which consisted of a handful of lodges, a small bakery and an extravagant Buddhist Monastery, where we observed a chanting session of the local monks.

Clay standing on one of the many suspension bridges before our ascent to Tengboche; notice the local men carrying ridiculously large amounts of weight on their backs behind Clay and the Buddhist prayer flags that line the bridge to the right.

Quick break to catch our breath on our way up to Tengboche

Standing in front of the Tengboche Buddhist Monastery

Friday, May 27: Tengboche (3870m) to Dingboche (4360m)

On our ascent to Dingboche, we noticed a disappearance of the trees. The landscape became much rockier as we passed by numerous rock slides and continued to weave our way up to the small town of Dingboche. By this point, our baby powder and “Wet Ones” felt inadequate in removing the “stick” and stink. My lust for a shower became unhealthy. However, Clay and I had agreed we were not going to pay the exorbitant amount for a bucket of hot water only to become smelly and sticky again within hours. We would wait for Kathmandu (only t minus 10 days, right?).

Clay and Salim still in Tengboche (our lodge is behind them) ready to begin the hike to Dingboche

View of Dingboche from the hill above

Saturday, May 28: Dingboche (4360m) to Lobuche (4930m)

Trekking from Dingboche wrapped us around the side of a mountain by a small village called Pheriche and carried us through a one-lodge town called Dughla. We stopped in Dughla for tea to warm up and to rest before a steep, but short, ascent to Lobuche. Salim was doing an exceptional job of guiding us as well as challenging us to physically push ourselves, yet enjoy our new surroundings. By the time we reached Lobuche, I could feel the air was much thinner. Fortunately, we had no symptoms of AMS (acute mountain sickness) from the altitude. After talking to several trekkers though, we had decided to preventively take Diamox that morning. We were moving very quickly up the mountain and did not want to risk developing AMS and missing a trip to Base Camp and/or Kala Pattar (great views). In Lobuche, the temperature dropped significantly (about 15-20 degrees F at this point) and even the yak dung fueled stoves couldn’t keep us warm.

Clay standing on the trail near Dughla

Trying to stay warm in Lobuche in my zero degree sleeping bag. Perfection.

Sunday, May 29: Acclimatization Day in Lobuche

We woke up around 6 am excited because today was  The Everest Marathon —  a marathon race that begins at Everest Base Camp and ends in Namche Bazar. Only 75 foreigners are allowed to run in the race, and generally the Nepali beat all the foreigners clear out of the water. The runners came straight through Lobuche, so Clay and I sat outside cheering them on for over an hour. I absolutely cannot imagine running this race — the altitude and rocky terrain make it seem like an impossible feat. We saw a few runners face plant in front of us.

It snowed the entire day in Lobuche. Other than trying to stay warm, we took a side trek up to “The Pyramid.” This is a research center funded by the Nepalese and Italians to study solar power. They let us see the relay panel inside the center. We trekked back to the lodge and had dal bhat with hot tea.

Deepak, the Nepali who won the marathon (time ~3 hr 45 min); he was the first runner we saw as we waited to cheer them along.

The Pyramid, research center we visited

Not a great picture, but this is Dal Bhat with some local chili spice in the jar

Monday, May 30: Lobuche (4930m) to Gorak Shep (5160m) to Everest Base Camp (5364m)

Our trek from Lobuche to Gorak Shep consisted of rising and falling rocky trails along icefalls and glaciers. On the way, I lost my down jacket (long story, but I set it on a rock while taking a picture and left it; this led to Salim running 1 hour 30 minutes back in search for it… but to no avail). Once we arrived in Gorak Shep, we dropped our bags and began our 4 hour return trek to Everest Base Camp.

The trek to Base Camp was fairly flat, but each step was laborious due to the altitude. Even so, the views energized me. When we arrived at Base Camp, we found that it was quiet with just a few tents of staff members still standing. Most of the Everest climbers had finished their treks a few days earlier. While there is not a view of the peak of Everest from Base Camp, the landscape is astounding with the Khumbu Icefall standing large and glaciers and their turquoise lakes in abundance. Salim surprised us and brought us Mars bars (milk chocolate, neugut, and caramel) to celebrate our ascent — nothing has tasted better.

The picture that led to a lost jacket... beautiful mountains on our way to Gorak Shep

On our way to Everest Base Camp, glacier lake

Everest Base Camp with lots of prayer flags; the tents of climbers/staff are behind us.

 Clay and I in front of the Khumbu IcefallClay and I at Khumbu Icefall; from here you can see the path the Everest climbers take to summit

Salim and I enjoying our Mars bars

To be continued…


May 22, 2011

Kathmandu, Nepal.  Clay and I slept until 10:53am. I guess we were a little sleep deprived. Anyhow, we jumped out of bed and were super excited about living another day in Kathmandu.

Our first stop was at a local bakery where we grabbed two danishes.  We also dropped by the little drug store next door to buy a Toblerone bar and some gingersnap cookies for our trek. Afterward we  walked through Thamel, the small district in Kathmandu near our hotel. Walking through Kathmandu is what I would refer to as “sensory overload” — the smells overwhelm you with hints of fire, dog urine, delicious foods, rotting trash, people and incense; the sounds are of beeping horns, screaming rickshaw drivers, people talking, children laughing and footsteps everywhere; the feelings are warm, sticky and wet when it drizzles; the sights are full of colors, happiness and sadness, movement and stillness, unknown languages and familiar languages, and so much more. I cannot even describe the experience, but hopefully this gives you a glimpse. We love it here. The people have been overwhelmingly generous and helpful. I wish our stay was longer.

After walking through Thamel, we returned to our hotel where we finished packing for our trek and arranging our itinerary. We had to cut out a small portion of the trail we originally planned to hike because our guide said it was impossible to do in one day and without a tent… so, without the extra day and tents, we decided to skip this portion (Kongma La).

In the afternoon we walked to Durbar Square — a beautiful, historic part of Kathmandu with lots of medieval temples and amazing architecture. A local man offered to share the history with us — who knows how accurate it was, but we were entertained! After Durbar, we returned to the hotel and met our awesome porter/guide. His name is Salim (not sure of the spelling, but will find out soon), and he is a native Nepalese. He has the most beautiful smile and speaks great English. We cannot wait to trek with him. He told us that two weeks ago he took 16 men from the U.S. army on the same route as us. They did it in 8 days. I’m impressed but the guide said it was super hard and that they had to send one guy back down the mountain because he got so sick from the altitude . Let’s just say we won’t be leaping up the mountain quite that fast.

Anyhow, our flight got scheduled for 7:30am tomorrow despite the strike. Salim, Clay and I will head to the airport around 5:30am and fly the short 40 minute flight to Lukla. From there, we plan to start trekking. Another night of Christmas-like butterflies! Enjoy the photos of Kathmandu.

The beautiful garden at our hotel, Hotel Ganesh Himal

Yummy (yak cheese!) danish from "Hot Bread"

Thamel district

Walking back to the hotel from Thamel

Clay was impressed by the chaos of the junction box

Some dolls in Durbar Square

A temple in Durbar Square

39 hours

May 21, 2011

A few words, some framed photos, and short video clips are completely inadequate in illustrating our experiences over the past 39 hours. Clay and I finally have a free moment in Kathmandu to blog about our journey here. It was exhilarating, exhausting, unforgettable, and perfect in so many ways.

A close friend of ours in Chapel Hill, Michael Skena, kindly offered to take us to the Raleigh-Durham (RDU) airport at 8am EST on Thursday. With previous experience living in D.C. and intentions to move back, we thought Michael would be a great person to discuss our layover plans in the Capital. During this discussion, the “Shake Shack” came up. With Michael’s highest recommendation of the Shack’s outstanding 100% fresh ground Angus burgers, homemade custard shakes, and yummy crisp fries, we thought a detour on our way from Reagan to Dulles would be necessary. (Plus, we decided we definitely need the extra iron to support us at 20,000 feet, right?) After Michael dropped us off at RDU, we met up with Clay’s coworker, Cho, and his wife, Caitlyn, who were headed to Hong Kong and miraculously leaving from the same terminal as us. Our excitement about seeing them almost resulted in us missing our first flight…

Us with Cho and Caitlyn before our first flight. (We, I mean Clay, has decided to make signs at each aiport and take a picture with it. Get excited for more.)

Anyhow, we thankfully made our short flight to D.C., then hopped on the metro and walked through the city with backpacks in tow to the Shake Shack. (Let’s just say, having backpacks at least half our size confirmed we were hardcore tourists.) We waited in the 30-minute line that wrapped around the building outside the restaurant and found ourselves more than satisfied after the delicious meal. Next time you’re in D.C. definitely check it out — it’s the new thing and well worth the wait.

Witness the line outside of Shake Shack.

At Dulles, we had our first major travel scare. The 2000+ person international security line for United Airlines took hours to get through.  When we arrived at the gate we discovered we were one among many who had not received a seat assignment for the flight. To make the super-scary, long story short… United thought it would be a grand idea to overbook the flight by 46 people. Crazy, huh? Anyhow, we prayed and, praise the Lord, got two amazing seats together with lots of leg room.

Tired already?

Our time in London was perfect. We took the Heathrow Express to Paddington Square and met a great friend, Alison McCue, for a true English breakfast. Alison works for Hard Rock European HQ in London and used her connections to get us passes on the big red bus — it was the ideal activity for such a brief stay in the city. Within a 12-hour period, we enjoyed chocolate croissants and cappuccinos  at the local bakery; saw the Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, London Bridge, Millenium wheel, and tons more; hung out with the locals in a park outside of Buckingham Palace; ate fish and chips and drank delicious beers at a local pub; walked through some residential areas; and returned in time to board our plane to New Delhi! By this point (9:45pm London time on Friday), we were weak with exhaustion, hungry from  neglect, jazzed with adrenaline, and continuing to simply enjoy each moment.

Alison took us to a fabulous breakfast.

Cappuccino and croissants. What more could you ask for?

Cliche, but necessary. The Big Ben.

Outside of Buckingham Palace... dreaming of William and Kate.

Fish and chips. Classic.

Our flights to New Delhi and Kathmandu were, fortunately, fairly uneventful. We arrived here around 3:30pm Kathmandu time and hit the ground running. We booked our porters and flights to Lukla; walked through the town to bargain for trekking poles and a map; ate dinner at a fabulous Thai restaurant called Yin Yang; went to a local  shop to get passport pictures taken (needed for our trekking permits); and showered — much needed.  Now, we plan to relax and rest tomorrow before we start our trek (hopefully) on Monday. I say “hopefully” because we found out today that “Kathmandu” is going on strike for 2 days starting tomorrow. That means that the taxis, stores, restaurants, and potentially flights will not be in service…currently, our awesome travel agent at the hotel arranged a 5 am taxi for us on Monday in hopes that we can avoid a 1.5 hr walk to the airport and make it on our flight. The language barrier has made it challenging to fully understand the consequences of a strike here, but we’re trusting it will all work out. We shall see. It’s just another adventure along the way. Enjoy the photos and hopefully we’ll be posting more soon of Nepal and such…

Bon Voyage

May 19, 2011

Off we go… We were hoping to post a video last night, but somehow — amidst many other tasks — this item on our to-do list got postponed until this morning. T – 18 minutes and our friend, Michael, picks us up and takes us to the airport. (Thus, this will be an abbreviated post.)

It felt like Christmas last night. I was so excited. You know that butterfly feeling you get that you can’t get to away?! Yes. I had that feeling, and it was wonderful. This morning we have hit the ground running as we finalize everything — unplugging all of our electrical products, turning off the air, adding last-minute items to our carry-on packs, and eating everything left in our refrigerator. Tomorrow we will be in London, and we cannot wait. Look for a video or post about our 14-hour layover in London.

Enjoy the “test” video below. Off we go… and bon voyage!

To give you some perspective…

May 11, 2011

…I thought I would post a picture showing the current condition of our home. It has taken me about 3 days to gain the courage to post it. Yep, I am embarrassed. It looks like a mad boar came roaming through our  house…or a monkey…or something very destructive. Anyhow, let’s just say that packing for a 6-week trip in a backpack is a challenge. Slowly we have added piles of clothes, gear, receipts, books, etc., to our living room in hopes that we don’t ultimately forget to pack something. But, the process has not exactly been organized, so my stuff, Clay’s stuff, and “our” stuff are now in a commingled mess. Lovely. Our goal tonight is to bring some order to this and hopefully determine what we do and do not need (or what will and will not fit in our packs). One week and our adventure begins.

Our living room after the “boar” destroyed everything.

 Clay got an orange vest. (Just in case he goes missing in India, I’ll be able to find him.)


March 29, 2011

Hello! First, and if you want to, read the “About” section of this blog to better grasp what “it” and “we” are all about.

So, I have a whole new respect for travel agents. T minus a few weeks and we will be on a plane to Nepal. I can hardly believe it. There is so much to do (inform we are leaving, buy long underwear, get our train tickets from Europe, oh… and finish our itinerary). I always thought I was a fairly organized person, but I am starting to doubt myself. Traveling on 16 flights, many trains, a few taxis and one tiny (perhaps smaller than a Smart Car) European vehicle between 6 countries in 48 days has left me with about 532 sheets of paper (and emails) detailing our elevation gains/losses, confirmation numbers, departure/arrival times, and hotel addresses. Regardless of the chaos, I absolutely cannot wait to board that first plane.

To manage your expectations of future posts, here is our itinerary (minus the nitty-gritty details) in video and text:

Day 1:  Raleigh, North Carolina –> Washington, D.C. –> London, England

Day 2:  Long layover in London, thus = tour of Buckingham Palace, Hyde Park, a great restaurant, etc.

Day 3:  London –> New Delhi –> Kathmandu, Nepal (at last!)

Day 4:  Kathmandu, Nepal

Day 5:  Kathmandu –> Lukla, Nepal (We will fly on a really small plane in the Himalayas. Amazing. Expect a video.)

Days 6-21: Start the “Three Passes” trek up to Mount Everest Base Camp and loop back down to Lukla (more details/videos/stories to come)

Day 21: Lukla –> Kathmandu, Nepal

Day 22: Kathmandu –> New Delhi, India

Day 23: New Delhi, India, Day Trip to Agra (Taj Mahal)

Day 24: Varanasi, India

Day 25-26: Jaipur, India

Day 27-28: Udaipur, India

Day 29: Mumbai, India

Day 30: Arrive in Rome (Mumbai –> Zürich –> Rome)

Day 31-32:  Florence, Tuscany, Italy

Day 33-34:  Montepulciano, Tuscany, Italy

Day 35-37:  Cinque Terre, Italy (5 different, gorgeous, coastal towns)

Day 37: Zürich, Switzerland

Day 38: Zürich –> Captiva Island!

Day 39-46: Captiva Island

Day 46-48: Orlando, Florida

Day 48:  Orlando –> Home

Crazy, huh? Day 1 cannot come fast enough. In the mean time, we’ll be finishing things up at work and trying to find clothes that fit in one backpack and are appropriate for zero degree (Nepal), 115 degree (India), and everything-in-between (Italy, England, Switzerland) weather.

Look out for more posts!