Take Me Back To Swaziland!

It’s true that a job, and not my backpacking itinerary, brought me to Swaziland. In fact, I had originally planned on traveling though more of the Asian continent after my time in Nepal. But the opportunity arose to work on a short-term project on the ground in Manzini, so I made a “quick diversion” to the bottom of Africa to put my MPH to work for a few weeks.

Driving into Swaziland.

Driving into Swaziland.

Swaziland has the best sunsets I have ever seen in my life.

Swaziland’s sunsets leave you breathless. Photos really don’t do them justice.

It's pretty here.

It’s pretty here.

It's pretty here, but I will never get the red dirt out of every piece of clothing that I wore here.

Lovely colors, but I will never get the red dirt out of every piece of clothing that I wore.

Since May 2012, I’ve been working with a small team to help a Swazi organization design a sexual/reproductive health program that engages sex workers. We’ve been supporting the organization remotely, but the program recently received funding (with promises of more), so it made sense to make a field visit and take the first steps towards implementation (woohoo!). You can read about Ungakwenta! here.

Office shot! It's amazing what not working for a few months will do for your motivation. I am so pumped to be back at it. Yay!

Office shot! It’s amazing what not working for a few months will do for your motivation. I am so pumped to be back at it. Yay!

HIV testing campaign messages. Yay Public Health. Feels so good to put on my nerd glasses again.

A man knows – to be the best, he has to test! Woo, Public Health Messaging! Feels so good to put on my nerd glasses again.

I spent 11 days in Swaziland. It was not enough. I LOVE IT THERE. My colleague Matt and I put in long, productive, awesome days with the SRH program, and squeezed in a bit of wilderness adventuring whenever we could. It was phenomenal. Not only did I get to do the work I love, in the field, with amazing, dedicated people, but I learned so much about Swazi life and culture, met so many interesting expats and locals, and saw how my life might look if I worked here full-time. And, of course, I got to hike through crocodile-infested swamps and climb giant granite mountains and see a buncha crazy animals and finally eat fresh fruit all day instead of rice (sorry, Nepal. I don’t want rice for a loooong time because of you.)

This is Nyonyane Mountain, or Executioner Rock, so called because one upon a time, criminals were hurled from the peak. We climbed it in between rain storms.

This is Nyonyane Mountain in Milwane, or Executioner Rock, so called because once upon a time, criminals were thrown from the peak to their deaths. We climbed it in between rain storms.

A sign at the beginning of the trail on one of our hikes.

A sign at the beginning of the trail on the Nyonyane hike in Milwane. The hike took us through dense, jungle-y swamps. I thought I might die.

Baby zebra! Seen in Milwane Reserve, where we hiked up our first mountain.

Baby zebra! Seen in Milwane on our hike up Nyonyane.  More animal photos to come in Swaziland Post #2.

Seriously though, hiking in Swaziland was like hiking in Jurassic Park.

Seriously though, hiking in Swaziland was like hiking in Jurassic Park…

Matt up ahead, hiking Nyonyane Mountain or Executioner Rock.

Matt up ahead, preparing to climb Nyonyane Mountain, which you can see in the distance.

Swaziland is a tiny country, with a soft, gentle, rolling beauty. The area where I lived and worked is lush, with steep green mountains covered in giant boulders that appear to simply pop out of the earth. It was summertime in the Southern Hemisphere, and though it was the rainy season, we were lucky to have mostly clear, hot weather. The mangoes and papayas and pineapples were the best I’ve ever had. There were amazing animals and so much nature for them to enjoy, in several huge wildlife reserves throughout the country. The culture is rich and proudly held by its people. Everyone we met was friendly and helpful. Everything moves slowly.

Matt and I stayed in an expat's house right next to Sibebe, this beautiful mountain made out of a single, giant chunk of granite. It's the second largest monolith in the world.

Matt and I stayed with a colleague right next to Sibebe, this beautiful mountain made out of a single, giant chunk of granite. It’s the second largest monolith in the world.

I hiked up Sibebe with Ben, whom we stayed with while working in Swaziland. This is Ben's arm holding some kinda crazy nature.

I climbed Sibebe with Ben, who is awesome and let us stay in his beautiful house while we worked and played in Swaziland. This is Ben’s arm holding some kinda crazy nature.

Hiking Sibebe.

Hiking Sibebe.

Sibebe again. I hiked 3 days in a row in Swaziland. So glorious.

Sibebe. I hiked 3 days in a row in Swaziland (after work or on weekends only, of course!). So glorious.

Interesting rock formation on Sibebe.

Aliens did this.

The third hike we did

The third hike we did was in Malolotja, a large wilderness reserve with tons of beautiful animals and its fair share of sky porn.

The hills are alive!...with seven different kinds of poisonous snakes.

The hills are alive…with seven different kinds of poisonous snakes.

These anemone-like flowers are called proteas.

These anemone-like flowers are called proteas. They were everywhere in Malolotja.

Of course, for all its beauty and kindness, Swaziland is not without its challenges. It has the highest HIV prevalence in the world. Much of its population lives in extreme poverty. Serious public health and development problems are apparent everywhere. There are issues with dependency on foreign aid. But while all of this is important to know and understand, it’s just as critical to recognize all that Swaziland has to offer, to learn just how intricate and interesting the culture and history are, and to develop a well-rounded awareness of how things in this country really work. And I only just scraped the surface, but I can tell you with confidence that I would absolutely love to live and work there for a while. And I just might try to, when I start job-hunting later this spring.

My fellow hikers in Malalotja.

My fellow hikers in Malolotja, admiring what beauty lay before us. Although, while those hills are pretty, they’re a b*tch to climb when it’s 99 degrees out. Just sayin’.

As a final note, I took a million sunset photos in Swaziland because they were the most intense sunsets I’d ever seen. The Swazi sky alone may be reason enough for me to move there. And though sunset photos seem a bit cliché by now, I feel I have to share at least a few. So here’s a random sampling of my shots.

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Almost Heaven, Himalayas

The highlight of my time in Nepal was an eight-day hike into the Himalayas, alone but for my guide, Bijay. Bijay lives outside of Kathmandu but spends the majority of the year in the wilderness, trekking or guiding or staying at his parents’ “mountain home” in remote Western Nepal (you have to hike for several days to reach it; there are no roads). I met Bijay on Couch Surfing, he gave me a good deal, and he turned out to be a fabulous guide. Here is the link to his personal trekking website.

After discussing about a thousand trekking options with Bijay, I decided to hike to Tsergo Ri Peak in Langtang National Park. This trek involved a 9-hour bus ride from Kathmandu, 6 straight days of wilderness hikin’ for a total of 80+km on foot, and another 9-hour bus ride back to the capitol.

Langtang is well known in Nepal for its beauty and environmental diversity. Its extreme variations in topography enable several different vegetation zones to exist within just a few kilometers of each other – one of very few places in the world where this happens. It was really cool hiking through a thick, damp jungle-y forest one day, the next day through alpine timberline, the next through a red-bush-filled prairie, and the next over a snowy, rocky, barren, Mars-like terrain.

It’s hard to organize this post, because the entire experience covered 8 days and I want to share exactly 8 million stories and experiences with you. But that’s not possible, so I’ll try to condense and be succinct and also show you several yak pictures because I know that will make you happy.

Yak pictures make everyone happy.

IMG_5515Anyway. The trekking adventure began with the bus ride to the village near the trailhead, at the edge of Langtang. This village is only 36 km, as a bird flies, from KTM. The road that leads there is 140 km long. It took our bus around 9 hours to make the drive. It was, for all intents and purposes, a 9-hour-long adrenaline rush. I was completely and utterly exhausted by the time we arrived, even though I’d just been sitting all day. It was both terrifying and exhilarating. But mostly terrifying. Dad, maybe you shouldn’t read the next few paragraphs.

Bijay and I boarded a public bus and departed from KTM at 7:30 AM. Within a half hour we were out of KTM Valley, heading up into the mountains on a single-lane road. Another half hour and the road turned to dirt, and dust, and rocks. Big ass rocks. And no shoulder on either side. On one side, a steep wall of earth. On the other, a plummeting drop far, far, far down. Now the cliff’s on your left. Now it’s on your right. Now left, now right again. Up and down the mountainsides, up and down, between 1400 and 4000 meters altitude, crazy switchbacks all the way. You’re maybe going 20-30 miles an hour, but it seems mighty fast. Your bus is loaded, packed with people, with bags and boxes, with a huge metal wheel (?), with sacks of grain, with lumber. Bijay tells you there will also occasionally be a cage of chickens stuffed in the aisle, or a goat.

IMG_5750The bus is full, with people standing in between the seats, and there are between 5 and 15 people riding on the roof at any given time, as well. You can see their shadow when the sun is just right, the silhouettes of teenage Nepali boys clinging to your and 60 other peoples’ bags strapped to the roof. The bus careens down the road, kicking up dust, hitting and rolling over rocks you think are just a bit too big to be safe. The bus tips precariously as it rolls over the boulders, just far enough onto the edge of its wheels, cliff-side, to make your heart skip a beat. Again, and again. You clutch the seat in front of you, which is broken and falling hard against your knees.

IMG_5698You are torn between admiring the beauty of the terraced farmland below you and panicking at the thought of the bus rolling down the hill, which seems wholly possible with one false move of the driver. Bollywood and Indian rap songs play loudly, on loop. The girl in front of you vomits out the window three times. Two boys in the back are passed puke bags, as well. The winding road is single lane all the way, and really a bit too narrow for the large bus. But it’s the only road there is. You realize this is going to be one hell of a ride.

You can see the thin line of brown road curving around the mountain on the right.

You can see the thin line of brown road curving around the mountain on the right.

Sybrubesi, the village where we stayed the night before beginning the trek.

Sybrubesi, the village where we stayed the night before beginning the trek.

Just 70km outside of Kathmandu, my Nepali guide stopped recognizing the language spoken by the people living there. The culture had completely changed. If you read about it, Nepal is actually crazily diverse. All the more reason to get out of KTM! I wrote in my journal after the long bus ride: “The people live so remotely in their little stone or metal houses, placed here and there amidst steep mountainsides of terraced crops…no roads but the ‘main’ one…near Tibet, just 25km away as a bird flies. Police checkpoints every 15 minutes of driving. Buddhist area – prayer flags and stupas everywhere.”

Prayer wheels being turned by the stream water, in the middle of the remote mountains.

Prayer wheels being turned by the stream water, in the middle of the remote mountains.

The next four days, Bijay and I trekked into the wilderness, away from electricity, away from dirt roads, away from people, away from civilization. Into the wild, into the forest and icy Himalayan air, into these massive mountains, into Sherpa country and nearly into Tibet. (Then we hiked back out in two more days. Much less epic, but still amazing).

IMG_5785IMG_5767Here’s part of my journal entry after the first day: “…a beautiful and interesting hike. All the while, alongside a bright blue, freezing glacial river. Swift and powerful. Subtropical forest. Steep rocky trail covered in donkey and cow droppings. Passed a shepherd’s makeshift home as well as a few traditional mountain villages. Houses of rocks and mud. Monkeys everywhere. /…Tomorrow we’re going to end the day at a ‘big village’ of about 300 people. No roads – only walking in and out. Unbelievable how remote everything is. Bijay said this is nothing; some people in remote areas of Western Nepal can only get food by helicopter. /…At least a few hikers/guides die or go missing doing this trek every year. One was a 25-year-old woman from Colorado, missing since 2010, no one has any idea what happened to her. She simply disappeared. This fall, a guide died by falling off a cliff, though they think he may have been drunk…  Constant reminders to play it safe, never underestimate this nature. The mountains will always win. It’s humbling…”

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You can just see the red-and-white-striped peak of Tsergo Ri in the distance, my ultimate destination!

This is called a Mani wall. They are built periodically along the valley by Tibetan Buddhists. The stones are carved with ancient spiritual inscriptions to remember the dead. Some of the Mani walls are over 400 years old.

This is called a Mani wall. They are built periodically along the valley by Tibetan Buddhists. The stones are carved with ancient spiritual inscriptions to remember the dead. Some of the Mani walls are over 400 years old.

The second day of hiking, we reached Langtang Village at over 3,000 meters, the point at which you begin to feel the effects of altitude. From my journal: “…In a Tibetan language, Lang=yak and Tang=home (this village is home to yaks). / …Prayer flags everywhere. Walk clockwise around the stupas. Vast valley below us, snow-capped peaks all around. Huge no-name waterfalls. Yaks and monkeys. Red berry trees. I stood outside when we got here, watching the thick clouds roll up towards me from below, covering the Buddhist flags in a white haze. I can’t believe I’m here…”

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A frigid Himalayan dusk and my fabulous new Aussie friend Priya, the only other woman I met on my trek.

Clouds rolling up towards me from the valley below.

Clouds rolling up towards me from the valley below.

The third day, we reached Kyanjin Gumpa, a town near the end of a broad valley, at 3,870 meters. I wrote, “It is freezing in this mountain village. Freezing and unbelievably beautiful.” I did not feel my hiking ability had diminished due to altitude, though perhaps I slowed down a bit between Langtang Village and Kyanjin Gumpa. However, I could tell I was way, way high up when I tried to sleep. Breathing in bed was almost painful – mostly, I think, because the air was icy, icy cold, and before acclimatizing, you have to breathe deeply to get enough of that precious O2 into your lungs. The cold air woke me up a little bit more each time I took a breath. Trying to keep my head inside my sleeping bag was also ineffective, as this was suffocating after just a few minutes.

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See that reddish mountain in the distance, on the left? I climbed that.

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Another Mani wall.

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GIANT YAK.

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Another view of the mountain I will soon climb, as well as a stone structure housing a prayer wheel, spun by the rushing water of a hidden stream below.

I should mention at this point that the air in my bedroom was ice cold because the trekking lodges Bijay and I stayed in along the route were made of rough stone, uninsulated, and unheated. You could often see through the gaps in the stone walls to the frozen ground and windblown yaks outside. The only warmth we received was during mealtimes, and then only in the lodge kitchens from the small wood or gas fires used to prepare food. And starting on the second day of trekking, temperatures fell near or below freezing from early evening until mid morning.

This type of cook stove was used in every tea house along the trek, for cooking and warmth. But mostly for cooking.

This type of cook stove was used in every tea house along the trek, for cooking and warmth. But mostly for cooking.

It was really cold.

It was really cold here.

A little explaining: along major trekking routes in Nepal, there is at least one small guesthouse located every 4-8 hours of hiking. These guesthouses are staffed by locals year-round, paid for by trekking fees. The accommodation is very basic, usually involving a single bed in a simple room and an often cold shower or bucket bath. Hot meals are available, but in the off-season, when I did my trek, options may be limited. After all, every single item of food (and everything else, for that matter) must be carried in on foot from the nearest town, which becomes progressively farther and farther away the higher into the remote Himalayas you climb.

Along the trek, we frequently crossed paths with local people carrying MASSIVE baskets of goods up the mountain. I always felt super lame when we’d pass a little old man with a towering basket of firewood or canned food or water bottles strapped to his back and around his forehead, as I panted and sweated up the trail with my much lighter pack, its name-brand hip-straps snugly fitted to maximize comfort… Another effect of seeing these porters was that I never, ever wasted any food along the way. I would just cry if I spent my days lugging 60- or 70-pound containers of food up the mountains only to see a dumbass tourist toss out half her plate of rice.

Bijay told me that during high season, the guesthouses may become so crowded with trekkers that you have to wait hours for a meal. My trek was in mid-December, at the tail end of the shoulder season, and I was pleased that I wasn’t constantly surrounded by other people. I love hiking because it takes me into the woods, away from society, into places where I can be present with nothing but nature and my thoughts and huge, vast, sprawling landscapes not even worth attempting to photograph for all their glory and beauty and intensity and otherworldliness.  Also, after physically strenuous hiking all day, the last thing I would want to do is have to navigate a social situation involving a small kitchen packed with tourists from all over the world, all vying for food and heat from the fire. I only met a few other people along my trek, and this was wonderful because I really got to know a few of them, which I doubt would have happened if there were many more of us out there. However, throughout the entire trek, I didn’t run into any other Americans, I met very few women, and I didn’t meet any other woman trekking alone but for her guide.

The view from Kyanjin Gumba.

The view from the small mountain village of Kyanjin Gumpa, 40km from the nearest road.

Sunset in Kyanjin Gumba.

Sunset in Kyanjin Gumpa.

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Kyanjin Gumpa, 3870m.

IMG_5479 IMG_5483 IMG_5476The fourth day, Bijay and I awoke early and quickly ate porridge in the freezing and dark final moments of Himalayan pre-dawn. Our goal on this day was to summit Tsergo Ri, a 4,875m peak overlooking Kanyjin Gumpa, its top covered in waving prayer flags and offering a stunning 360-degree panorama of snow-capped peaks all around, some nearly 8,000m tall. I had never been that high before – my record was just below 4,000m in Colorado, and even that, I wasn’t totally sure about (I had to turn back on that hike due to lightning above the tree line, so I don’t know exactly how high I made it). But I really, really wanted to make it to the top of Tsergo Ri. I prayed the altitude wouldn’t do me in before I summited the clouded peak.

Just beginning the hike up to Tsergo Ri, that stripey peak up ahead.

Just beginning the hike up to Tsergo Ri, that stripey beast up ahead.

Bijay and I set out for the mountain just as the sun was coming up, though the sky was dark and foreboding, and the wind strong. The water in my Camelbak froze after just a few minutes of hiking. Thankfully Bijay was smart enough to fill his canteen with warm water, so we were able to share that on the way up. We climbed silently. Soon, we reached the 4,000m mark, after which I noted that every step I took was a new personal altitude record. And every step was slower than the last. I didn’t feel dizzy or faint, but I felt winded and tired. I reassessed my physical state every few minutes, knowing that I’d have to turn back if I started to feel altitude sickness. Happily, I never did, I think because I went so slowly. That said, we still made it to the peak in 3.5 hours, though Bijay said it usually takes at least 4. I consider that a win.

A few views from along the hike up:

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Nearly there...

Nearly there…

About the hike to the peak, I wrote in my journal: “Extremely steep dirt trails, near vertical but no plants or trees to hold on to. Windy and icy cold all the way. I felt like a snail. Wind blowing violently. Snow made visibility very poor.”

About an hour from the peak, it began to snow. The wind whipped the clouds around us, obscuring our visibility. For the rest of the climb, I couldn’t see farther than about 3 meters in front of me – just enough to catch the blue of Bijay’s hat up ahead. The hiking was safe, as we were simply going up, not along a cliff or through a forest. We were climbing up a huge field of big rocks, using hands and feet, and at times pulling ourselves up very steep, barren dirt paths. Exhausting. I had one of those brief mental fallbacks where I took stock of how it felt to be there in that snowstorm, at that altitude, not being able to see any view at all – “This sucks! Why do I do this? Why do I think this is fun? What is wrong with people, that we do these tortuous things for fun?!” – but then, suddenly, we were at the top.

Visibility during the snow storm, close to 5,000 meters.

Visibility during the snow storm, close to 5,000 meters.

A view of the peak, through the blowing snow.

A view of the peak, through the blowing snow.

Couldn't see too far in the storm, but what we could see was splendid.

Couldn’t see too far in the storm, but what we could see was splendid.

We sat behind a boulder in an attempt to shelter ourselves from the whipping wind and the stinging snow. We huddled and we shivered and we laughed at the fact that we worked our asses off to climb to the top of the world, only to be caught in a white whirlwind that kept us from seeing anything around or below us. The fact that I may have physically and mentally pushed myself harder than ever before, for no reason other than the challenge itself, made me feel a bit silly. But miraculously, within about 10 minutes, the snow suddenly stopped. The cloud around us blew to another peak across the valley. And we saw the vast, vast earth below and around us on every side.

IMG_5430 IMG_5399IMG_5428 IMG_5413I was so excited by the view that I actually started running and skipping back and forth across the summit, snapping photos and joyfully exclaiming expletives. But very quickly, the altitude reminded me that I really shouldn’t be running and jumping or doing anything faster than a snail’s pace at this point, so I surrendered my physical enthusiasm and simply stood in awe, munching a frozen piece of chapati and trying to keep my fingers from going completely numb. “The Himalayas are f*cking huge.”

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Above the clouds…

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Before we began our descent (“I felt like shit most of the way down”), I pocketed a tiny pebble from the highest point on the peak of Tsergo Ri. I am not really a sentimental person, and I certainly don’t collect things, but this mountain was not only my biggest physical feat ever but is also higher than the highest mountain in the Alps and the highest I may ever climb. I hope it’s not, but you never know.

Rocky trek down over 1,000m...

Rocky trek down over 1,000m…please excuse my finger, the goin’ was rough.

OUR HOME PLANET IS SO INCREDIBLE.

OUR HOME PLANET IS SO INCREDIBLE.

Side note: A 33-year-old Swedish personal trainer I met in Kyanjin Gumpa also climbed Tsergo Ri during the snowstorm. He’d previously summited Everest Base Camp and Mt. Kilimanjaro. He had the body of a god and was clearly born to overcome all sorts of physical challenges in his life. But he told me that Tsergo Ri was the most challenging climb he’d ever done, due to the weather conditions and the rapid increase in altitude (we climbed up over 1000m [after already starting at 3870m above sea level] in a matter of hours as opposed to taking a few days to gradually reach higher altitudes, like on Everest). So, this made me feel pretty empowered, as a smallish American woman who is certainly not a gloriously chiseled Swedish personal trainer and certainly not built by the gods to champion all types of incredible physical feats in life. I JUST REALLY FRIGGIN’ LOVE MOUNTAINS! IT WAS SO EPIC!

The next two days, Bijay and I made our way back down through all the vegetation zones, starting in snowy Kyanjin Gumpa, hiking along scenic ridges, and across glacial streams, to the warm and sunny village where we began nearly a week earlier. Then came the 9-hour heart-stopping bus ride back to my host family’s house in Kathmandu, where I gleefully took a real hot shower and hand-washed my absolutely disgusting trekking clothes.

View from the way down.

View from the way down. You can see a squiggly road on the mountain across the valley. That’s the way home…

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Almost back down to the town!

IMG_5355I miss the Himalayas already. My brief journal entry from the final day of the trek reads, “Trying to reflect on how I feel but maybe it’s too soon…I feel like I just completed something amazing, like I am so much physically stronger than I could ever have imagined, and that I really want a good, long, hot yoga class.”

By now, I’ve had some more time to think about the trek, but I’ll just share one brief note on my reflections. Since August, I have written in my journal, “Actually, this was the most incredible thing I have ever done in my life” on three separate occasions.  I think it’s safe to say 24 turned out to be a pretty fab year.

Here’s another yak photo.

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Nepal in Photos

Nepal in Photos, MINUS the Himalayas – those shots deserve their own post!

Most of my time in Kathmandu, I lived with the Pandeys, a Nepali host family I connected with via a British friend of a German friend. My Nepali family resides in a big brown house just outside the city, close to the famous Swoyambhu (Monkey Temple!).

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Prayer wheels at Swoyambhu.

I loved my time with the Pandeys. I really feel like I have a family in Nepal after living with them for just a month.

In line with Nepali tradition, my Aama (mother) gave me a garland of marigolds and fed me three spoonfuls of curd as I departed their home on my last day.

In line with Nepali tradition, my Aama (mother) gave me a garland of marigolds and fed me three spoonfuls of curd as I departed their home on my last day.

My host brothers and me. And why yes I AM wearing traditional Nepali clothes! My very neon Christmas gift from the Pandeys.

My host brothers (aged 16 and 12) and me. And why yes I AM wearing traditional Nepali clothes! My very neon Christmas gift from the Pandeys.

My activities at the Pandeys’ involved eating an unbelievable amount of home-cooked Nepali goodness, helping my bhaiharu (brothers) with their English, hand-washing my clothes, chatting about Nepal and America, laughing about table manners and idioms and cultural opposites, drinking countless cups of masala milk tea, and making daily excursions to explore different areas of Kathmandu Valley and beyond.

Laundry day. Aama and I would spend a few hours on the roof, she efficiently laundering the clothes of her four-person family, and I t-e-d-i-o-u-s-l-y scrubbing my few totally wrecked backpacking outfits.

Laundry day. Aama and I would spend a few hours on the roof, she efficiently laundering the clothes of her four-person family, and I t-e-d-i-o-u-s-l-y scrubbing my few totally wrecked backpacking outfits.

I am so grateful that I opted to stay with a host family in Nepal instead of in a hostel, because I feel I was able to learn so much more about Nepali culture, and also enjoy a familiar atmosphere when I came “home” every evening or after my longer excursions around the country. For the first time since I began traveling, my days became somewhat predictable. I knew what to expect in the evenings; I knew where I would sleep every night; I knew what the food was like and didn’t have to worry about making it myself. I got to know the family dynamic and the flow of the days in their home. Though the structure that existed in my new home was at times a challenge after deciding my own time for months, it was also welcomed, as it allowed me to feel “at home” and a bit settled for the first time since August.

I found plenty of ways to occupy myself around KTM Valley. I visited numerous Hindu temples, Buddhist stupas, monasteries and abbeys, the botanical gardens, a Buddhist full moon festival, a classical Nepali concert, and several famous medieval city squares boasting beautiful and ancient spiritual structures and statues. I learned how to eat all my meals with my right hand, how to jump on and off a moving bus (or tempo or van), how to say a few key Nepali phrases, and how to haggle for jewelry and yak wool shawls like a pro (just walk away…just walk away). I reveled in being in such a dynamic setting once again, surrounded by warm-hearted people and extreme cultural and religious diversity, keeping every moment interesting as I worked to navigate my way through this totally new and foreign part of the world.

And now, too many photos!

Pisa: Convent Spectacular

I made my way from Florence to Pisa where I’d connected with friends-of-a-friend-of-a-friend (seriously), who had generously agreed to host me in their big, old house right in the city center. When I arrived, I was greeted by Lia, a tiny, beautiful Italian woman, probably a few years older than me. She showed me around the home, telling me how 15 people lived there together in a type of community. The building, she noted, used to be a convent; the vast sprawl of their floor was comprised of two large kitchens, two small bathrooms, a huge living area, and numerous bedrooms (maybe around 10?), all with high vaulted ceilings adorned with peeling gold and pastel frescos, making them look like they would better belong in a cathedral. It was gorgeous, warm, and homey.

Over the next few days, I met most of the people who shared this community, a spectacular mix of graduate students, PhD candidates, rainbow hippies, activists, journalists and artists coexisting peacefully, sharing the cooking and cleaning and doing their best to eat supper as a group every evening. They ranged in age from early twenties to at least late thirties (I’m estimating). I don’t speak Italian, so my participation mostly involved smilingly helping with food prep and sitting in entertained silence as this huge, young family laughed and conversed together in their native language every evening.

I stayed in the converted convent for a week. This was somewhat unintentional (I’d planned to make trips to Cinque Terre and Siena, which never panned out) but mostly, I found my new Pisa community a good place to chill out for a little while. I’d been traveling nonstop and desperately needed to prepare for the Asia leg of my journey, which was rapidly approaching; I had fallen far behind on work-related emails regarding my January Swaziland project; and I needed a chance to regroup and figure out if I was still on the right track with my new life of adventure and exploration. In the end, it turned out I was…

In Pisa, I made the very difficult decision to reject a job offer for a health program management position in a remote region of Uganda. Among other reasons, I decided that if I gave my backpacking trip an end, an answer, a definite deadline, I would lose some of the magic that I can feel building with every new experience I have. In short, I would stop searching.  I spent a few days brooding in cynical reflection, experiencing a raw and painful internal chaos with the weight of this choice, but eventually felt strong in my resolve to journey on. There will be other jobs. Right now, I’m exploring – not just the world, but my own goals, priorities, and desires for what I want my mid-twenties to look like. And I think I’ll best find those answers by going against every grain in my (previously?) obsessively driven self, for once, and just…being. Passively. In the world. For a little longer.

Pisa is a tiny, tiny city. I spent hours walking its winding streets, learning the area like the back of my hand in a matter of days. I sat and read on the banks of the Arno; I laughed out loud the first time I saw the silly tower leaning so absurdly; I awkwardly attended the biweekly convent party where I barely had one full English conversation but watched fifty Italian hippies dance and sing to the sounds of their own music; I taught 5 of my hosts how to play spoons. I slept a lot. I ate a lot. I caught up on work and on myself.

Here are some photos!

Five Days in Florence

My five days in Florence centered around a few major themes: exploring magnificent old churches and art galleries, cozily hiding from the rain with countless espressos and a book in my hostel’s common area, improvised hiking in places I was probably not supposed to be, and, most importantly, feeling my Great Grandma’s presence everywhere.

Though my much-loved Great Grandma Iole (pronounced Yo-Le) immigrated to the US when she was quite young, her family was from Florence. Maybe it was simply projected, but every time I stepped down a particularly old cobblestone street, or walked into a historical church, or meandered through a more “local” part of town, I felt so connected to my Great Grandma. This made my time in Florence extremely meaningful to me – just knowing she had been there, and her family had been there, just about a century ago.

Photo-worthy highlights of my time in Florence included “hiking” to the top of Piazzale Michaelangelo and exploring a secret forest at the top, climbing Campanile di Giotto and seeing a 360-degree panorama of Florence and the surrounding Tuscan hills, visiting the famous Uffizi art museum (Botticelli everywhere!), and, of course, simply meandering through this glorious, ancient, artistic and architectural wonder of Italy.

Here are some photos from my experiences.

Magic on Kramerspitze

The main reason I decided to go back into Germany from the Czech Republic was that I had been promised an Alps trek, which has been a dream of mine since reading Heidi when I was probably 7 years old. (Also, of course, I wanted to meet David, the allegedly wonderful twinsy of my friend Robin, and promiser of said Alps excursion.)

I hope this post is as epic as I’ve been building it up to be. I think I’ll just start with a photo – the first glimpse of up-close, snowy Alps from the train speeding towards our mountain-town destination, where the trailhead is located.

Yes, yes, a million times, yes!

David and I decided to climb Kramerspitze, which could supposedly be completed in a day if you started early enough for it to still be light out during your descent.

The hike we did starts at the lower righthand side near the town. See all the switchbacks? That’s the way up. The peak is where it says “Kramerspitz” (how Bavarians spell it). Then we followed the snowy ridge to the left, and down the mountain on the next dotted red line.

The afternoon before our hike, David and I took a train from Munich to Garmisch, a small town nestled in the snow-capped Alps on the Germany-Austria border. We’d booked a hostel for the night, with plans to begin our Kramerspitze climb around 8:00 the next morning.

We arrived to the hostel with about ½ hour of daylight remaining, but decided we wanted to do a quick, shorter hike that very day, known as Partnachklamm. David’s “spare grandma”, Dee, had recommended this hike, which took us into a deep gorge in a mountainside, through caves and rugged rock tunnels, alongside a roaring, icy stream.

We did the hike in the dark.

It was incredible.

I had two headlamps; a tiny bit of dusky light was still showing through the trees by the time we got to the trailhead; and the trail was clear and quite easy, so there was little risk involved in making this a night hike. In the beginning, I wished it was daylight, so I could see the true beauty of the gorge and river flowing down from high Alps. But as we hiked on, the experience was just amazing. It was misty and cold; we could look high up above the crevice’s opening and see the mountain stars; we were continuously splashed by waterfalls flowing down right beside the rocky trail; we worked up a sweat climbing, climbing, climbing up into the gorge.

Eventually we took a rickety cable car back down the mountain and hiked back into town.

Obviously my photos from the night hike are no good, but here are a few of them that kind of came out:

Just leaving town; closing in on the trailhead in the fading light.

Almost in the forest at dusk. That huge ski jump was used in the Winter Olympics when they were held here in 1936.

Oh, beautiful Alps. Thank you for letting me gleefully climb all over you, at all hours of the day and night!

Yeah, no photos in the actual gorge. You can Google Partnachklamm for daytime pics, if you feel so inclined.

Anyway, back to the purpose of this post: Kramerspitze!

David and I woke up early and dressed in silence, packing our Camelbaks with food, a first-aid kit, extra layers of clothes, and plenty of water. Thankfully David is no more of a morning person than I am. Few words were exchanged, and that was juuuust fine.

After a hearty breakfast and coffee at the hostel, we headed to the Kramerspitze trailhead just on the edge of town.

Hiking, commence! (Note this sign says the summit can be reached in 5 hours. WE DID IT IN 4! Win.)

The trail started out nice and easy, with just a gentle incline.

Don’t be fooled. This is the only “flat” part for the next 9 hours…

Soon we came to this lovely bridge to help us around a giant boulder. In reflection, I feel the first 25 minutes gave me a false sense of security of how well we’d be provided for on the rest of the mountain…

Beautiful view already, and we’re basically still at the bottom!

Serene blue Alps. Only the low ones are blue. The high ones are rocky and white and sparkly and magical.

Soon enough, we came to this:

See that steep crevice? Time for a lil’ scramble!

But of course, this early in the hike, we were generously helped by some metal cables bolted into the rock.

Another amenity only present at the bottom of the hike. I wasn’t kidding about that false sense of security.

Yeah, that was the only cable we encountered. But the scramble continued for some time…

David killin’ it behind me.

We scrambled up near-vertical rocky slopes, like that in the photo above, for about 2 hours. It was physically strenuous, but extremely exhilarating – especially each time we reached a level point and stopped to look around!

Waterbreak! Oh, and not a bad place to take one.

As we climbed higher, the trail became steeper and more narrow, with sharp cliffs opening up to our left. Soon, we came to this memorial for a schoolboy who’d fallen from this point. More than anything, this reminded us to be extra cautious and safe with ourselves today. This is no Appalachia! (Though I do love my rolling blue Appalachians. It’s just that the Alps are very clearly a different beast).

The memorial.

The higher we climbed, the better the view…

Eventually we were up on the first ridge. It was incredible there; totally exposed on both sides, opening up to the vast valley far below and the magnificent Alps all around.

David on the ridge, admiring what magic surrounds him…

And soon, we caught sight of the summit. It looks deceptively close in this picture. The trail actually winds around behind it, with at least another hour of navigating steep, slippery switchbacks and icy patches before hitting the top.

The peak! It looks close, right? It’s not. If you look EXTRA hard, you can barely see the cross at the top, glinting in the sun.

And then, suddenly, the trail turned to ice.

Just a tad slippery.

It was around this time when we spotted a mountain goat! And I had my first Heidi moment, which involves me being ridiculously giddy about where I am and what it looks like all around me – “I’m basically Heidi right now!!!” That’s a Heidi moment.

We carefully hiked along the icy trail, being careful to step down hard – crunch! – along the trail’s outer edges, to ensure our boots had a solid hold in the less icy snow. Before long, we rounded a bend and saw what lie ahead:

You can just make out a faint black line in the snow, all along the right side of that mountain. That’s the trail, running through an avalanche field. (The peak we’re heading for is up and to the left of this photo).

Yep. An avalanche field.

This was my first experience with a hike of this level of risk (it was much more intense than Leggjabrjótur), so at this point, I was extra grateful to have David there. David has experience doing snowy treks, and knew that we could cross the avalanche field with minimal risk because there was just one layer of snow on the mountain. He also taught me how to stop myself if I slipped and started sliding down the side of the mountain (lie on your back, spread your arms, and pray…).  I let him lead the way through this tricky (but epic/ridiculously amazing/”sick” [David’s word of choice]) part of the hike.

A closer view of the avalanche field/trail.

What’s up, guys?! I’m just crossing an avalanche field like it’s a normal Sunday activity! (Slash, peeing my pants).

David scrambling up some snow/ice. This is when we started referring to it as the “trail” (emphasis on the quotation marks). And why yes, he IS in shorts!

This part of the hike wasn’t necessarily steep (at least not in most places), but it took us a long time because of the intense focus required to take every step. Again, we had to stomp down hard to ensure a good foothold; we had to keep our eyes peeled up ahead for icy patches; we had to maintain a safe distance between us to decrease the risk of causing an avalanche or tripping one another. And on the steep bits, the focus was that much more extreme: not only were we already in a risky situation, but now we were also climbing up slippery, icy, sharp rocks with our bare hands.

Even with the intensity of this part of the hike, the views around us made it worth taking the time to stop for photo breaks!

This is a crazy-light photo of David hiking up ahead of me. You can just make him out – a dark patch on the left. This picture gives you a sense of how monstrous these mountains are.

Finally, we made it safely across the avalanche field, and into a saddle between two peaks. We just had a final incline to wind our way up before reaching the summit.

I’m basically Heidi!!! Can you tell how freakin’ happy I am in this moment!?!?

Big snowy rocks and smaller blue mounds surrounding us on every side.

Thanks for the awesome pic, David. That’s me, on top of a mountain, in the middle of the Alps, Germany, Europe, Earth, Solar System, Milky Way…feeling so blessed to be present here!

After a short break in the saddle, we were ready to make the final haul. We rounded the back of the peak, and saw that yet another icy patch lie ahead – this time much steeper than the avalanche field, with a sharper drop to one side.

Scary/Worth it.

Up, we climbed…

So close! Just one long icy scramble to go…

Until….

Nailed it.

We reached the summit (about 2000m) after hiking for just over 4 hours. I think we could have done it faster, but I was all about the photo breaks. No point in speeding up such a beautiful mound of earth and rock, anyway!

The. Views. Were. Insane. Just across those mountains to the right? Austria.

The hills are ALIVE, you guys. THEY ARE SO ALIVE!

I really wanted to spin around and sing The Sound of Music, but decided against it since we were on a tiny peak surrounded by nothing but thin air and a long, loooong fall…

What’s up, blackbird? Just enjoying the view? Me too, man. Me too.

In the above photo, that especially tall peak on the far right is Zugspitze, the highest mountain in Germany. David and I originally planned to climb that, but it snowed and made it impassable. That’s ok, though. Kramerspitze most certainly did not disappoint.

Little houses in a tiny town in a big valley far, far below.

Blackbirds on a wire. (The wires were holding in the giant cross that is staked into the peak, known as the Gipfelkreuz).

The cross, and some other hikers who joined us on the peak.

We found lunch to be extremely necessary when we made it to the top…

David eating while I continue to photograph everything in sight (which is a lot).

Finally, after recuperating, eating, and consulting our map, we decided to start the hike down. We opted for a longer, but more gradual route, which ended up taking us about 5 hours. We reached the bottom just as the sun was setting.

The first part of the hike down was still a bit intense, as the rocks were steep and the trail icy.

David making his way down from the peak.

Soon the trail opened up to another incredible, exposed ridge on top of the world. Follow the ridge and you’ll follow the trail…

David on the ridge.

Mountains. Man. Cliff.

Soon we caught an awesome view of a lake in the middle of a ring of mountains. This is Eibsee (“-see” means “lake” in German), and it was quite beautiful in the late afternoon sunlight.

Eibsee.

You can see the fading sunlight reflecting on the lake, down below me on the left.

We thought we’d left the snow and ice behind, but rounded a bend and came upon a lengthy slope absolutely covered in slush and ice chunks. It wouldn’t have been too bad if we were going uphill, but coming down was a different story. We both slipped and slid chaotically most of the way down.

Ice is trickier on the downhill.

Not my favorite part of the hike down.

The ice soon ended, and we were met by a gradual decline into a broad meadow of small alpines and lots of mountain goat hoof prints.

What a lovely spot for a bench. Somebody was a thinker!

David and I frolicked in the meadow before re-entering the forest, which came next on the hike down.

Mountain handstands! My version of frolicking. Oh, Alps. Everything about you is just perfect and wonderful.

This can’t be real, right?

Once we left the meadow behind, we hiked downhill, through the woods, for about 2.5 hours. This was still incredible – tall alpines, cool air, lots of shade and sunbeams sliding through the trees, the smell of pine and fresh dirt – but I have to admit, my knees were pretty much ready to quit after the first hour and a half of this steep, wooded descent.

I don’t have many photos from within the forest, as it was quite dark – and the photos would have just been trees, anyhow.

We gradually made our way down series after series of quick switchbacks and steep dirt trail…

Them’s some switchbacks…At this point all I wanted was a mountainbike to take me the rest of the way down!

Finally, as the sun was sliding down behind Zugspitze, we reached the bottom.

The Zugspitze and a darkening sky.

As we walked several kilometers on harsh pavement back to the hostel, I turned around and took a final look at the incredible Kramerspitze.

We climbed that.

Feeling exhausted but satisfied, David and I picked up our things and hopped on the train back to Munich, where we cooked a huge dinner and promptly fell asleep.

What an incredible adventure! Thank you, Kramerspitze, for finally allowing me to realize my Alps-climbing dream. And thanks, David, for sharing such an amazing hike with me! I will most definitely be back for more…

Sunshine, Song, and Fire

I arrived in Copenhagen intending to stay 3 days before heading on to Germany. I ended up staying for a week.

My friend Molly had recommended I visit Copenhagen, and it definitely seemed like a place I would like, based on the things I’d heard. The city, and the people I met there, fulfilled and surpassed all my expectations.

I love this place.

I rang my Couch Surfing host’s bell on Monday afternoon, after a short train ride from Stockholm. Martin welcomed me into his flat, showed me to my room (my own room!) and made me a cup of tea. We sat and talked, and were immediately friends.

Martin is a wonderful human being. He is a talented musician, a juggler, and a fire dancer, but he also works for the Red Cross and the Danish Refugee Council. A social worker, he has spent long periods of time volunteering for non-profits throughout South America. He speaks Danish, English, Spanish, and Portuguese. He is well traveled and tells incredible stories from all over the globe. He is my favorite type of hippie: relaxed and full of love, but intelligent, passionate and driven to work towards a safer and more peaceful world. I feel blessed to have met Martin, purely by chance, in my search for a suitable and safe host in Copenhagen. He made my stay all the more enjoyable.

Martin being a tourist next to the famous Little Mermaid statue.

My first full day in Denmark, instead of venturing into the city on my own as I typically do, Martin took me to a forest just north of Copenhagen called Dyrehaven. This forest was unlike anything I’d ever seen, as it was full of – just teeming with hundreds and hundreds of deer. Herds of does and fawns, smaller groupings of graceful and solemn stags with expansive antlers and thick fur. The deer were somewhat accustomed to humans walking through their small forest, so we were able to get quite close to these beautiful creatures. There were many different types of deer, of all sizes. It was an incredible experience. We spent hours walking through and sitting in this magical forest, enjoying the red and yellow leaves, the birds and deer, the sunshine (finally, sunshine in Scandinavia!).

Wow. Just breathtaking.

I wish these photos were better. The iPhone doesn’t zoom so well. Just believe me when I say this place was enchanted.

Check out the cool antlers on this resting stag.

Built in 1913, this structure in Dyrehaven has a roof of sticks and no windows. I’m very curious about its purpose.

Beautiful autumn forest and so, so many deer. You can see a few of their silhouettes in the distance.

That night, while Martin was practicing his fire and juggling arts in central Copenhagen, I went to a small bar – Din Nye Ven (“Your New Friends”) with Kristoffer, who I met through Robin of Edinburgh. Kristoffer and I had a few Danish beers and talked about the city, agreeing to meet later in the week to explore together. Kristoffer was born and raised in Copenhagen, and was genuinely excited to have someone to show around his turf.

The next day, I explored downtown a bit on my own. Copenhagen is truly a unique place. It is one of the most progressive and green cities in the world. Nearly half of its citizens bike to work every day. One in three food purchases made in Copenhagen is organic. There are nine relevant political parties to choose from. The Danish Parliament is run by women.

It is my kind of city, for sure.

Just look at all the bikes!

Danish parking lot.

Bikers, bikers everywhere. Oh, and the sky’s nice, too.

Copenhagen also reminds me a bit of one of my favorite US cities – Washington, DC. For example, there are no tall buildings. It has a small-city feel. There are many green spaces – big parks, ponds, lakes, and streams. The city is quite clean. Everyone seems to be very involved in moving the place forward. But unlike DC, Copenhagen lacks that background noise of power, that atmosphere of political conflict and global influence. It feels like a family city, a friendly city, a little bit of a hippie city. So it has all the qualities I liked about DC, lacks those characteristics I could have done without, and adds in a bit more humanity and a lot more bike lanes. I can see myself in Copenhagen again.

Just wandering around in downtown Copenhagen.

Some business-y looking buildings I came upon after crossing Knippelsbro into Christianshavn.

In the evening, I met Martin on a bridge to enter another part of Copenhagen called Freetown Christiania. Actually, Christiania is kind of not part of Copenhagen at all – it is a self-proclaimed (and now recognized) autonomous, self-governing area, which began as a community of squatters but has grown into somewhat of a commune (but a very large one, with about 850 permanent residents and any number of tourists and visitors on a given day). No photographs were allowed throughout much of Christiania, so instead of posting photos, I will do my best to describe the atmosphere.

I expected the area to be a constant festival, but in fact, I found several different cultures and climates in Christiania. There was a definite “family” feel in part of the district, then a big love, big party vibe in others, and in a few places, a somewhat dark, sketchy atmosphere where it was clear drugs had taken their toll on the environment and the people. But overall, it is a beautiful place. Everyone who lives there had the license to build their own home, so walking through the residential areas is like exploring a child’s fairytale or dream. Houses are of all colors, rainbowed, striped, and sparkling; some are round or octagonal, or very tall and skinny. Some are built right on the water, and some are up in trees. I even saw a teepee. There are grassy walking trails and big, old trees, tree swings and lakeside benches, the scent of wood stove smoke everywhere. To me, it smelled like my childhood.

Near the entrance to Christiania. Photo credit: Wikicommons.

One of the many magical homes in Christiania.

Giving me teepee nostalgia.

Martin and I returned to Christiania another night for an improv music show put on by one of his good friends. The music was lively, the atmosphere joyful. Big dancing everywhere. Christiania is a little haven of lawlessness, and relative peace, in a greater city of progress, bridges, and bikes. I loved it all.

On our walk home, the snow blew down hard. Martin heroically survived our several-kilometer-long conversation about women’s rights, as we walked into the wind. The next morning, the sun was shining again.

Beautiful blue sky – and a bus celebrating Movember.

Thursday, I met Kristoffer and we visited several different places throughout the city. At the end of the day, I truly felt I’d seen most of Copenhagen, and Kris confirmed this. We had walked for five hours straight (and then I continued to walk for another three hours when I met Martin later).  My legs were very aware of Thursday…

Kris and I walked through many beautiful parks in Copenhagen. This city is just full of huge green spaces, with lots of old trees and little brooks.

Kristoffer and I visited Glyptoteket, Copenhagen’s sculpture museum; Vestebro, including the red light district and several multicultural and interesting areas; Nørrebro, with its wide streets and bustling bike lanes; a few different beautiful parks and green spaces; and Assistens Kirkegård, the burial site of Hans Christian Anderson and Natasja Saad, among many others.

In one of the rooms of Glyptoteket. I liked the architecture of this museum much more than its contents.

So happy I started my trip in Europe – I didn’t have to miss out on my favorite season!

Love the colors of these photos. Blue sky, yellow trees, green grass. Hi, Kris!

You can tell from which direction the wind blows.

This picture is one of my favorites. It reminds me of Alice in Wonderland. Part of it almost looks like watercolor.

I believe this is a military training school. The park and beautiful trees in the above photos comprise the school’s backyard.

This is the walkway through Assisten Kirkegård (the cemetery). It’s stunning in person. The light was fading so this photo does not do it justice.

Somewhere in Nørrebro, I think. Sorry if any of these are mislabeled, residents of Copenhagen!

Just another street we walked down.

Thanks for the extensive walking tour of your hometown, Kristoffer! It was really wonderful learning about the city through you and seeing all these different places.

My last full day in Copenhagen, Martin was performing in a Halloween fire show in Måløv, a town about 30 minutes west of the capitol.  I was excited to attend this show, as I’d been trying to find a promising Halloween activity since arriving in Europe (without much luck…I thought Halloween would be so much bigger here, but it’s really not, especially for adults. Quite disappointing for someone who likes to spend hours creating fantastical costumes, dancing with fellow monsters, and taking cold, leaf-scuttling walks under a Halloween moon).

Martin and I met his fellow fire dancer on the train, and made our way to Måløv.  Martin and Line (pronounced Lena) prepared their costumes, makeup, and tools, soaking their poi and contact staff in kerosene.

Some people here were truly in the Halloween spirit! Also, this face painter was one of the make-up artists for the Harry Potter movies. How nice of him to do this at a tiny library in Måløv.

Line transforms Martin into a devil/tribal warrior for his fire show.

I approve of your town’s Halloween decorations, Måløv. Well done.

The fire show was beautiful to watch. With the other performers, Martin and Line danced and spun their flames to live music, enthralling an audience of hundreds. Children dressed as witches and ghosts and fairies watched in awe as the fire rolled over the dancers’ skin, into and out of their mouths, and around their fluid bodies in fast, burning loops of sparks and flame.

Line and Martin spinning fire. The little girl in front of my camera was awestruck the entire show. She barely moved at all.

So cool. Or rather, so warm…

After the fire show, the crowd marched into the town, carrying torches, to a Halloween event that had been arranged for the children. Martin, Line and I hopped on the train back to Copenhagen.

Thus concluded my stay in Copenhagen. I cut Hamburg out of my itinerary in order to stay a few extra days in this special city, and I don’t regret it at all. I made two wonderful friends, I explored for hours, I practiced yoga with a roomful of Danish women, I listened to live music twice. I watched people dance and flow with sticks of fire, I had incredible conversations, I felt and smelled my childhood every time I saw a tree house or the smoke from a wood stove. I was excited by the wide bike lanes, the snow and sun, the deer-filled enchanted forest. I was grateful for Martin’s company, his songs, his thoughtfulness, and (extra thankful for) his coffee (my first CSing host with a morning coffee ritual…thank god!). And I was happy to get lost only a few times, and even more pleased to find myself over and over again.

Copenhagen, I will be back.

Arthur’s Seat, and Edinburgh in photos

I was in Scotland for an entire week, yet have only 3 blog posts to show for it. This is because for the majority of my time in Edinburgh, Robin and I just chilled out, caught up on what we’d been doing for the past few years, and relaxed around town and in his flat. It was a much-needed respite from my constant traveling, hostel-ing, and Couch Surfing, and I’m glad I got to rest, do my laundry, watch some movies, and – most importantly – make lots of home-cooked food! Eating out all the time is not only expensive, but also not nearly as good as cooking your own dinner. Thanks, Robin, Louise, and Barry for letting me use your kitchen every day! 🙂

Edinburgh finally blessed us with a sunny day, and Robin and I decided to take advantage of the blue sky by climbing to the top of Arthur’s Seat, the highest point in the city.

Here is a view of Arthur’s Seat from the Edinburgh Castle:

You can see Arthur’s Seat in the distance. It was formed by an extinct volcano system that was eroded by a glacier, according to Wikipedia…also, it might be the location for Camelot.

Approaching Arthur’s Seat from below.

The climb itself wasn’t too bad, and there were lovely views of the city from several points along the trail.

You can barely see some ancient ruins over on the right-hand side of that rocky part. That was once St. Anthony’s Chapel, which fell into disrepair in the 1500s. No one knows when it was built, but the assumption is 1100 AD. So, it’s just a little bit old.

Hiking up the muddy slopes.

The view from one point along the trail.

The trail was only steep in a few areas. Robin and I always opted for the more challenging routes, though we felt a little less bad ass when we noticed all the grannies and little kiddies taking these routes as well.

It’s a pretty popular hill to climb, being the only real one in Edinburgh…

Finally we made it to the top… but not before a little scramble!

This was a totally optional route, and Robin and I opted in.

Robin doing some weak scrambling behind me.

Nice view of the ancient city from atop Arthur’s Seat.

Another vista.

Robin was super proud to have successfully completed this extremely strenuous hike. And by extremely strenuous I mean the easiest hike I’ve done in Europe.

And here I am at the very top of the pile of rocks that forms the tip of Arthur’s Seat:

Me – and all the other “hikers” (read: tourists) who “climbed” this hill.

Once we’d enjoyed the view from the very windy peak, we walked down the opposite side a bit to enjoy lunch in a more sheltered area.

The view during our picnic lunch.

As soon as we’d eaten, storm clouds rolled in and we briskly made our way down Arthur’s Seat to seek shelter from the sudden rain.

It rained the rest of the time I was in Edinburgh.

One day, even though it was pouring, Robin and I ventured to a coastal town about a half-hour train ride from Edinburgh. Our plan was to walk along the ocean, see a different area of Scotland, and maybe make our way to a castle that was supposedly still standing somewhere along the beach. We thought we could brave the rain to have this adventure.

The Scottish beach!

Unfortunately, it was about a 2-mile walk down the beach to reach the castle, and the wind was horrendous, and the rain was freezing, and here is how Robin (and I) felt about making the trek:

Yeah….no.

(We later found out you had to pay like 30 quid to get into the castle, so, sour grapes and all, we didn’t regret our decision to bail).

Instead, we wound up having tea in a pub we found in the little coastal town.

Much happier about this decision. Also because those are homemade brownies he’s about to devour.

So, as I mentioned, Robin and I didn’t embark on too many more Scottish adventures while I was in Edinburgh. It was very rainy and very grey and very cold, and we thoroughly enjoyed making a ton of delicious food and watching bootlegged movies (just like old times in Kenya!…) and drinking ample bottles of wine in the warmth of his apartment.

Here are a few remaining photos from the rest of my visit:

This is where Robin got his Master’s! (University of Edinburgh)

What can only be described as some kind of horrific Panda massacre in downtown Edinburgh.

This picture isn’t of anything important (at least not that I’m aware). But I really like it, and it sums up the beauty of this old city.

Part of the University of Edinburgh (I think?)

A little love on the path.

One view from the roof terrace of the National Museum of Scotland (which was worth the trip!). Quite Mary Poppins-esque, don’t you think?

And last:

Lumos! (In the Elephant House again, where J.K. Rowling started writing HP).

Until next time, Edinburgh.

8 Rainbow Day

After our days of nonstop, treacherous, incredible hiking and exploring throughout Iceland, Hannah and I took a much-needed Day of Rest in Reykjavik. We hanged out in coffee shops, walked around the city, went to the Penis Museum, ate some questionable food, and went to bed early. The next morning, we were ready to get up and at it again.

Iceland’s Golden Circle tour is extremely popular among tourists here, but we had absolutely no interest in sitting on a crowded bus with a hundred angsty foreigners all day, so we decided to do yet another self-guided tour with our little Kia, a grocery bag of snacks and our Camelbaks.

It snowed the night before we drove around the Golden Circle.

The Golden Circle is a big loop of highway that takes you around to several of Iceland’s most spectacular views and unique geological phenomena. The drive itself is incredibly beautiful, and we were enthralled by the weather throughout the day:

Mountain squall on the left, sunshine on the right. Rainbows at every turn.

We were driving alongside Iceland’s largest lake on our right, with looming snow-capped mountains on our left, and massive expanses of flat field, gentle hills, or rocky landscape in between. Clouds were doing funny things because of this, and all day, we drove in and out of beautiful sunshine, sideways rain, high wind, and even hail and snow. The lighting was perfect for taking photos along most of the drive, and we counted a total of 8 – that’s EIGHT – rainbows (including at least one double).

Rain on Iceland’s largest lake in the distance. Mystery cairns all over the field right in front of us.

Another shot of the same view, but this time with sunshine.

The Golden Circle doesn’t have to take more than a few hours if you’re speedy, but we stopped all the time to take pictures of the views from the highway, so it took us all day. Just normal Iceland, being ridiculously, crazily, astonishingly gorgeous.

Yeah. It’s pretty here.

The first “formal” attraction we came to was in Þingvellir National Park (Þ is pronounced like something between “d” and “th”). Besides more amazing views, waterfalls, hiking trails, ancient churches, and streams, the Þingvellir area is situated on the tectonic plate boundaries of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It is one of only two places on earth (the other is the Great Rift Valley) where you can actually see how two tectonic plates have drifted apart (and continue to drift apart at 2 cm per year).

We were standing on the Eurasian plate, looking across at the North American plate, 7 km away. In between the rifts in the earth’s crust, a sprawling lowland of trees and rock and lake. We hiked around down there in between the two tectonic plates.

Standing in Middle Earth, looking across at one of the great tectonic plates. Oh, we climbed that, by the way.

Along our walk we came upon Drekkingarhylur, the Drowning Pool, where, under Danish rule, women who were found guilty of various offenses were drowned up until 1838. Over 300 women were apparently drowned here, for crimes such as “witchcraft” or having children out of wedlock. Þingvellir is where the Icelandic parliament, Alþingi, was founded in 930.

Once full of the bodies of murdered women, the bottom of Drekkingarhyl is now covered with Icelandic Krona coins…not a wishing well, people.

This church is an historical structure in Þingvellir, built just shortly after Iceland’s “adoption” of Christianity around 1000 AD.

The church has, of course, been entirely rebuilt and repaired several times. It looks like a toy.

Anyway, enough history. Here is a waterfall:

This was in Þingvellir, and fed the Drowning Pool. This waterfall is cascading down one of the tectonic plate edges.

We continued on around the Golden Circle, next coming to some geysers. I’d never seen a geyser in person before, and it was pretty awesome.

A view of the field containing the geyser Strokkur and other boiling water pits.

Strokkur, the main geyser we saw, goes off quite violently once every 4-8 minutes. I watched it, like, 4 times. It startled me every time.

Strokkur erupting up ahead.

It was really windy, and Hannah and I nearly got splashed with the boiling water one time, as it blew horizontally out of the geyser as opposed to its typical vertical spout. Icelandic safety standards are not on par with US standards. I guess they like their adrenaline rushes a bit more than us wimpy Americans (for more on this, see Leggjabrjótur).

Hannah and I walked around the geothermal area a bit more, checking out a variety of boiling water pits and old volcanos…

I’m still enthralled by the fact that this is my home planet.

Some tourists walking quite close to a volcanic opening in the earth’s crust…

On the left: Giant bubbling hole in the earth. On the right: Hannah.

After we’d had our fill of the geyser area, we got back in the car and made our way to Gullfoss, which translates to “Golden Falls”. Gullfoss is massive, powerful, misty, and, obviously, breathtaking:

Misty falls.

Gullfoss is actually a double waterfall.

Huge, swirling mist above the falls completely soaked us as we walked up above Gullfoss.

The last stop we made was a quick one, but it was still incredible: a HUGE volcanic crater!

This picture shows nearly the entire crater, which is was apparently formed when a volcano imploded (?!) on itself. It is now filled with freezing cold water. Iceland is a land of extremes.

Here is a picture for scale:

See the tiny hikers up on the right hand side? Hannah and I were good tourists, for once, and didn’t walk past the safety rope like these kids.

That was the end of the major points of interest along the Golden Circle. Of course, while these attractions were good, the drive itself was an incredible experience, what with the weather and landscape and 8 rainbows. Here are a few of my better rainbow pictures:

The luckiest house in the universe.

Fin.

Leggjabrjótur to Glymur

Our third day in Iceland, Hannah and I drove to a fjord to the SW of Reykjavik, with the goal of hiking to Glymur, the tallest waterfall in Iceland. We had pretty questionable directions from a guy at the hostel (he took Hannah to the hostel window, pointed, and said, “You will need to drive between that mountain range and the one behind it, and you’ll find it…”), and the GPS was useless since we didn’t have a destination address. So, though it was only supposed to take us an hour to get to the trail head, we ended up lost for 2.5 hours on the winding, mountainous roads along the edge of the fjord.

But that’s ok, because if I am going to be lost anywhere on earth, I want it to be in Iceland:

A view from somewhere along Hvalfjörður.

Me being lost in Iceland.

Me being lost in Iceland.

Eventually, we found the trail head for Glymur Falls. We had read online that we could hike up the right side of the stream, which was harder, or choose to take the left, easier side. We’d also read on various blogs and websites peoples’ opinions of the trail, which ranged from no mention of difficulty at all to the statement, “this hike is not for the faint of heart.” Thus, we had no idea what to expect, but considering ourselves regular Viking Queens after the volcano mountain hike we’d done the day before, we immediately opted for the harder trail.

The challenging trail is known as Leggjabrjótur – literally, Legbreaker. The remainder of this story is best told in pictures.

The trail head is right up ahead. That mountain on the left – yeah, we climbed that.

We parked our car and began following the trail, which was rocky and rough, but marked every 50 feet or so with a yellow dot spray painted on a boulder. The incline wasn’t too bad in the beginning, and we were totally enthralled with the scenery around us. Bright yellow birches, red rocks, green moss, snow-capped mountains up ahead.

Just starting the hike.

The trail progressively became less clear and more treacherous.

Hannah hiking.

After climbing uphill for a little while, we had an amazing first view of the valley below and, in the distance, the fjord we’d driven around to get to the trail head. Our car is down there near-ish the water, somewhere.

One of the first major views after only about 20 minutes of hiking up Leggjabrjótur trail.

Soon we left the ground and began climbing higher and higher up the rocky mountain. The trail snaked along small, but ever-growing, cliffs, with a beautiful glacial stream below to our left.

Hannah hiking along a cliff edge.

We climbed that…

Another view of the rocks we were climbing over.

Whoever maintains this trail was thoughtful enough to give us a ladder up a particularly steep incline.

More ladder than stairs.

At one point early on in the hike, the trail went through a cave, under part of the mountain.

Here is Hannah on the trail in the cave.

The cave was really awesome. I have a video of it but haven’t figured out how to upload it yet. Soon!

We had two different cave exits from which to choose.

One of the exits took us over some rocks and then across the stream. The other exit took us directly over the stream. We decided to climb over the rocks and then cross the stream because at this point, we were still feeling like Viking Queens.

The stream we had to cross is visible through the right cave exit.

Eventually we came to a log that had been placed across the stream. We made our way across it. It was windy and slippery and there was a very loose rope to hold on to, but it didn’t provide much support…

Hannah crossing the stream on a slippery log. And my finger. I was a bit distracted by how much the log was bouncing Hannah around over glacial waters.

After we crossed the river, we began a steeper ascent. Parts of the trail were so steep that there were ropes staked into the ground to help us pull ourselves up the mountain. It was rocky, muddy, and slippery, with a steep incline on one side and a sharp drop on the other.

Hannah and I took a break when we finally reached an almost level point, as we just climbed up this cliff nearly vertically. And we were only about halfway up this cliff – the first of many.

It quickly became clear to us why this trail is the “harder” side.

I took a break at another great vista point. Windy and chilly up there, but we were sweaty and panting.

We kept climbing…

You can see the trail winding off to the left, behind us, along the cliff in many places.

And climbing…

Another view from the trail, which began to wrap into the mountains.

And climbing…

Hannah up ahead! And hikers up ahead of her, tiny dots in the distance.

We were nearly in the clouds, and felt a distinct drop in the temperature. Of course we were both in t-shirts, having removed our woolen sweaters and winter hats long ago.

Up, up, up.

It was all rock and sky up there. But we still had a lot of climbing to go…

Hannah. Rocks. Clouds.

Finally, we rounded a bend, and saw Glymur Falls at face level. When I took the below picture, we were standing on the edge of a cliff similar to the one on the right in the photo. You can even see our shadows if you look closely. We’re like two little bumps on the giant shadow the cliff has cast.

Our first good view of the falls.

We enjoyed this breathtaking view for a few minutes before continuing on, up and over the cliffs to our right in the photo above.

I should point out that a while before this, the yellow dots marking the trail had disappeared, and we had to make several decisions as to what direction to take at different points along the most challenging and dangerous areas of the trek. It was evident that several previous hikers had done the same, as we saw faint trail traces in various directions as we went along.

[After the hike ended, I realized that this part of the adventure required a different kind of hiking navigation than I’m used to. Often, when walking on a trail, it’s easy to daze off, just watching the ground in front of you. But on Leggjabrjótur, we had to not only watch the ground right in front of us for rocks, cliffs, and slippery patches, but also keep an eye turned up ahead, to ensure we weren’t walking into a dangerous area.]

Nope, not there yet. You can barely see two dots way above the falls – those are other hikers, and that’s where we’re headed!

Soon, we were above the falls. I don’t have pictures from up there, unfortunately, because I was paying too close attention to the slippery trail so as to avoid plummeting to my death from the top of Iceland’s tallest waterfall.

After exploring the stream above the falls a bit, we decided we would need to come down the other, “easier” side of the falls for the hike back down. It would be dusk soon, and we thought it was far too risky to take Leggjabrjótur DOWN the mountain. But we faced a dilemma: there was no log placed over this stream to deliver us safely and dryly to the opposite bank. We decided we’d need to ford the river, as we’d read might be a possibility on a few websites before the hike.

We walked up the stream a bit to ensure we were a safe enough distance from the edge of the falls. The stream was quite shallow, but fast-moving and cold. We tried to strategize how to make it across by stepping on rocks, but there weren’t enough to carry us all the way without getting our feet and lower legs soaked. We decided we’d have to cross barefoot, carrying our shoes.

I tried to comfort us by saying, “Oh, well, you know, it’s been sunny all day, so it’s probably not as cold as we think it is, plus it’s really shallow, and we can just run across really fast…” Wishful thinking, to be sure.

We timidly removed our shoes and stepped into the icy stream. It was colder than any water I’d ever been in. The rocks were slippery, and the water came up to my lower calves. It was incredibly painful. I remember feeling my mind and body immediately going into overdrive, as I hobble-ran across the stream with Hannah. We both almost fell a few times, but thankfully, never all the way down. Hannah was cursing all the way across, but I couldn’t make any sound – I just heard myself gasping in disbelief. It was incredible, in a terrible way.

Finally making it to the bank on the other side and jumping out of the water, I found my voice and I’m sure the mountains around me have never heard such a string of expletives.

Hannah pulling on her shoes after fording the glacial stream above Glymur Falls.

As we pulled on our shoes on the mossy banks of the opposite side, my toes completely numb, I looked far up steam and saw a whitish patch in the mountain where the stream originated. I said, “Oh my god, Hannah, is that a GLACIER right there?” She looked, nodded, and replied, “Yes…that’s f*cked up.” We knew the water came from a glacier at some point, but didn’t realize it had literally JUST MELTED OFF A GLACIER MOMENTS BEFORE IT FLOWED OVER OUR FEET.

Invigorated, adrenaline pumping, we settled ourselves on some mossy rocks for a break and a snack before heading back down the other side of the trail. As we ate, we watched two other hikers come up around the bend on the opposite side. We observed them curiously, as we could tell they were contemplating how to cross the river, as we had moments before. We relaxed, munching on Icelandic cheese and crackers, as we watched them remove their shoes and socks. I’m not proud of what happened next. We just sat there, commentating from afar, as they clumsily crossed the icy stream. It was like we were spectators, being entertained by these poor souls undergoing horrific pain inflicted by freezing glacial water. They eventually made it across, and we continued eating. The hikers walked below us and continued down the mountain ahead of us.

Eventually, we packed up and decided we’d better get going, as the sun was beginning to peek down over the mountain opposite us. Unfortunately, the “easier” trail we were promised was barely less treacherous than Leggjabrjótur.

View of the mountain we climbed up – on the left, now shrouded in clouds – from the opposite trail.

We soon learned that there were no markings on this trail, and though there were some cairns here and there, there was seemingly no order to their placement. Bits of trail were visible here and there, but we had to make our own way for much of the descent – which was tricky, since the descent seemed to have been created not by Parks and Rec officials, but rather by an avalanche or rock slide.

Hannah in the clouds, on top of the world. Just beginning our descent.

Hannah took this picture of me climbing down the “trail”…or, perhaps, making my own trail.

We wound our way around cliffs, over boulders, through thick underbrush, over small streams, down, down, down the mountain.

You can see the stream flowing down in between the cliffs. We were up above that left slope when we were near the falls.

Dusk was rapidly approaching, so we tried to be hasty, but the going was rough.

Hannah, climbing down, looking across at the trail we climbed up.

In the below photo, you can see the trail to the left of that bright bush. And to the left of the trail, a steep, faaaar drop into the ravine below.

Breathtakingly beautiful views from a crazy trail.

Eventually, we came to the bottom of the mountain. I have a great little video I shot after we were once again on level ground, but haven’t had the connection required to upload it.

We thought we’d easily spot our car when we got back down to the fjord area, but ended up getting lost in the dusk for another 30 minutes or so. The trail back had no markings, and cairns proved useless. We backtracked and re-backtracked multiple times. Luckily I had my headlamps with me, in case we needed to walk all the way out to the highway in order to find our way back in to where our car was parked. We didn’t need them in the end, but I was grateful that I had them just in case!

At the end of the day, this hike was easily my greatest physical feat in a long time. It was challenging in every way, and still so, so incredible. I would do it again in a heartbeat. As I collapsed back into the driver’s seat of the car, I gave a special thanks to my legs, for carrying me up and down those mountains, and to my feet, for carrying me safely across that glacial stream. And I thanked my dad, from afar, for giving me all those protein bars and his extra head lamp before I left for Iceland.

So, fellow adventurers, take note: if you plan to hike Leggjabrjótur, be sure to do the following:

  • Start the hike with at least five-six hours of daylight.
  • Wear shoes with the best treads you can find.
  • Understand that Leggjabrjótur is really not an exaggeration…it. is. hard.
  • And finish the hike feeling like a Viking Warrior Queen, totally covered in mud and moss and rock, thanking your stars that you made it down unscathed.