Sunday, April 16, 2017

Patagonia, March 2017



Rick's Flickr for the trip. https://www.flickr.com/photos/itinerantrick/sets/72157681937724215

Timelapse of all our lunch stops in the mountains: https://youtu.be/n7Ab87K-BIk


March 12



We arrived in Buenos Aires and headed to our hotel in the Palermo neighborhood, called the Miravida Soho. Rooms were nice and traditional, but small. We spent the afternoon walking around and enjoying lunch on the sidewalk. In the evening, we took the hotel wine tasting. We had a torontes/Sauvignon Blanca blend, a Malbec from Mendoza, a Malbec from Salta and a Malbec/Cab Franc/Metlot from Patagonia. And, some rare beef, some cheese, some prosciutto and empanadas, which means we have no room for dinner...


March 13




Another mostly travel day today. Flew from Buenos Aires to El Calafate in Patagonia. We did get a couple hours in the afternoon to wander around town. The best views today were coming in for a landing along Lago Argentina. We stayed at Hotel Michelangelo, which was the least exciting of the trip, but clean, family-friendly and serviceable. We dined in the hotel restaurant on traditional local stew - the restaurant was called Isabel. We had 'El Vigilante' dessert. It was cow cheese with a sweet potato 'pudding', which was very much like quince paste. Talk about Spain meets South America!


March 14



We went to the Parque Nacional Los Glaciares for a day trip. We had about two hours of hiking along walkways along the Perito Moreno glacier in addition to a boat ride up to the glacier itself. Most of the big calving happened while we weren't watching, but we saw a few pieces fall off. We dined in the evening at Mi Ranchito restaurant.


March 15



We took a "day trip" to Torres del Paine in Chile. It was a stunning and clear day. Our guide said it's only 1 in 20 days when the entire massif is clear of clouds. We got in quite a few vistas and a 1 hour hike to stretch our legs. We saw condors, flamingos, guanacos, rias and a grey fox. We arrived back in town around 10pm, and were happy for local late-night dining. We dined at Buenos Cruces, which was delicious and a charming restaurant.


March 16



We arrived in El Chalten after a 3+ hour bus ride from El Calafate. We checked into the Don Los Cerros hotel and walked around town-another beautiful day! We scoped out restaurants to try and grocery stores and had a quick lunch at a forgettable pizza place. The ice cream place - Domo Blanco was worth a re-visit. Dinner was at Don Los Cerros.

March 17



Epic mountain day today. 21km hiking to Lagune del Torre just below Cerro Torre. Clouds finally lifted off the peaks around 2:30 pm. Warm weather, light winds and epics views. Life is good! Dinner was at La Tapera - universally the highest rated in town.


March 18



Another epic day in the mountains. Rick officially declared this one of Sarah's Death Marches. A bit over 25km and about 1,000 meets of gain - 500 meters in the last "1 kilometer" (really 1.68, but who's counting!) to Laguna de Los Tres at the foot of Fitz Roy. For those not familiar, this is the "North Face" made famous by the clothing brand. Dinner was again at Don Los Cerros.

March 19



Took a recovery day today with cloudy skies and feet that felt like hamburger. Hiked up to Mirador de Los Condores. It's only about 3km round trip, but after we crossed town on foot. Did lots of roving about town - stopping at park headquarters to tell them about our huemule sighting, shopping for groceries, etc. and still ended with about 15km for the day. Oh, and a nap, which is required at least once on all vacations, and a massage. Life is good! Dinner was at Fuegia. We had paella, which was good.


March 20



Super-spectaculoso Fall color today. We did the Madre y Hija route connecting the Sendero Cerro Torre and Laguna de Los Tres routes. It might be the most under-appreciated route in the park. The trail has no kilometer markings or colored markings like the rest, but is very clear to follow. Something like 23k today with stunning views after the early rain cleared. We got clouded in for sunrise, but the weather made up for it when Roy G Biv made an appearance across the Cerro Torre watershed. In the evening, we thought it was time to try out a traditional parrilla - Asador - Parrilla El Viejo Nando. I had the biggest plate of lamb I've ever seen. Ok, that is off the list.


March 21



The sunrise did its magic this morning, and then we got in our last 20km+ hike to Lomo del Pliegue Y Tombado, a 1000 meter high outcropping where you can see all the major peaks of the area - if they aren't shrouded in clouds (which they were). We bundled up and ate our lunch before making our descent. We decided another visit of Doom Blanco and Fuegia were in order.


March 22



We bussed back to El Calafate and enjoyed a walk around the lake in the early evening. We even found some flamingos! This visit we stayed at Hotel Kosten Aike, which was a very nice place and only 10 dollars more than the Michelangelo. We returned to Buenos Cruces for dinner, which was again fantastic.


March 23 & 24



We flew back to Buenos Aires and stayed in the wonderful Hotel Fiero - definitely recommended for service and quality. We did the wine tasting and dined in their restaurant, which was highly rated and very good. A great meal to close out our time in Buenos Aires.

The next morning, we walked all the way across town to the Recoleta neighborhood and visited the famous Recoleta Cemetery and an artists' market before walking back. It was about 10km each way. The Hotel Fiero was nice enough to offer us showers in the pool area before heading to the airport to return home in the late evening.









Tuesday, December 27, 2016

A journey in Sub-Saharan Africa - November 2016

I recently had an invitation to collaborate with technologists in Cameroon, so took the opportunity to explore a bit of that country and to then jump off for a safari in Kenya and Tanzania and visit the partner of a friend from here in the states in the Arusha area.

Professional Journey in Cameroon
For a description of the professional part of the journey, I posted a bit on LinkedIn.

Photos
My Flickr from the whole trip
Rick's Cameroon (with a real camera)
Rick's Kenya (with a real camera)
Rick's Tanzania (with a real camera)

A few non-professional observations about Cameroon




Development

The country is probably the least developed I have visited, followed by Bhutan - and not counting our visit to the runway in Bangui, Central African Republic. While Cameroon has a bit more western influence than Bhutan as evidenced by a couple of French grocery stores and ample French imports, Bhutan has a much more deliberately developed tourism industry that is also quite environmentally progressive, along with a stable supply of electricity for those who can afford it. If I weren't surrounded by mobile phones and people discussing digital entrepreneurship, I would think I was in 1960 in the cities of Cameroon and 1890 in the country. The country is not set up for tourism at all. This is a shame, because it could be a perfect destination for ecotourism. There are very few roads, and we only experienced one that was of modern standard on the drive from Douala to Kribi on the coast.

Dress

Cameroonians are pristine in the way they present themselves. I was dressed business casual during our trip and felt significantly under dressed most of the time, while being significantly more dressed up than is typical of Silicon Valley. People have custom-tailored clothes made of local waxed-cotton batik and each person really expresses herself or himself in clothing. Colors and a cacophony of patterns rule the day. It is not unusual to see a man dressed in head-to-toe batik suiting. Women also make modern and traditional shapes out of these batiks and combine them with more western attire. I bought a couple bolts of fabric and had a skirt made while in Yaoundé. It became a bit of a goose chase, as we ended up flying out earlier than it was ready, so a friend picked it up and sent it to Douala by bus. Then, we were barely able to retrieve it in Douala before leaving, as it came on a later bus than expected - after two trips to the bus station.


Religion

We attended a Presbyterian church during our stay. The music presentation was significantly more robust and lively than what we have here at home - with a choir in the loft above and another one in the front of the church. Hymns were sung from shared songbooks with lyrics, but no printed music. Some of the hymns we knew, and others we did not, but definitely had roots in French classical music. Based on my comparison with Baptist services in Ivory Coast as a child, the Presbyterians are still on the reserved end of worship style - even in their cultural context. The sermon was in French on Luke 8 where Jesus healed the man with demons and cast them into a herd of pigs. The preacher was energetic, but call and response somewhat limited. I again admired the colorful and attentive dress of the parishioners as they processed out of the church row by row. After the service, the elder women formed a very colorful prayer circle outside the church. Cameroon appears to be primarily Christian and primarily Protestant, but with a significant populations of Muslims - probably about 1/3. Cameroonian Christians and Muslims seem to be quite well integrated and united. However, in the capital, there is a Muslim neighborhood, primarily comprised of migrants from other African countries that is much less integrated.



Time

Cameroonians, on average, don't have much money - so time becomes a currency and something to spend or lavish on others. We found people were extremely generous with their time - taking ample time away from their business and other concerns to assist us in discovering their country. I also found that people were extremely optimistic about time - how long travel distances would take to cover, how much traffic would impact things, etc. We often found ourselves starting adventures much later in the day than we anticipated and to our fast-paced Silicon Valley minds, everything just moved slowly. Many times things that seemed like they should be simple transactions required inquiring with lots of individuals by phone or in person. Planning was something that happened in real time - we often felt like we were in a JIT compiler. In addition to being optimistic about time, I also found Cameroonians are generally more optimistic than I would expect about lots of things.



Food

Cameroon is a veritable fruit basket, with a lot of plenty and ability to cultivate any number of crops. Meals typically involved "casava" or manioc root, fish, chicken or meat, fried plantains and sometimes dishes made with spinach or other greens the most unique thing we tried was pureed spinach with peanuts. The raw peanuts gave it an acrid taste. For breakfast, people typically had beignets and red beans and tropical fruits. It's clear a number of the dishes that we associate with the south have their roots in West Africa. Due to the relatively high nutrition levels, Cameroonians are of significant stature. Most of the women were my height or taller.

Albinism

I was shocked at the numbers of people with Albinism we saw during our stay in Cameroon - much higher than I've observed in other places we've traveled. In subsequent research, it appears that rates are about 4x what we see in North America. I also learned that Albinos are subject to superstition and violence, particularly in Tanzania.



Adventures

Both of our attempts at outdoorsy things resulted in interesting stories. Like many developing nations, it seems that there is an aspect of "why walk, when I can drive"? But, I do so like to walk. So, we looked for a couple opportunities during our week.

The first attempt was successful, walking to a hill-top hotel in the capital one afternoon with Laura, a Peace Corps worker. That was lovely. The second and third attempts in nature was where things got interesting.

The day we arrived in Douala, we took at car out to Buea, at the base of Mt. Cameroon. See the section above about time. :) Essentially, we arrived in Douala 1 hour late at 9:00 am due to a late flight. Then, the van that picked us up at the airport had a flat tire. Then, after arriving at our hotel, we met up with our host in the city, Georges. Then, we ate lunch. Then, we started driving toward Buea. Traffic was bad. We made a grocery stop, picked up a friend, Lionel, in a hotel on the outskirts of Buea, but couldn't find him right away, so 30 minutes later resumed our journey. Then, we encountered road construction, so the drive to Buea was another two hours. This put us at the base of Mt. Cameroon around 3:45 pm. Then, the mountain was covered with clouds, so Lionel did not want to walk. But, I insisted we should enjoy the forest regardless. Apparently, I'm a bit naive. We pulled over in the village at the bottom of the mountain and inquired with a lady running a fruit stand who then made a call. A young man appeared who could take us up the mountain (I didn't know we needed an escort!). Then, we had to stop at the village chief's home and request permission to walk the trails. We answered questions about where we were from, why we wanted to go on the mountain, how long we wanted to walk for, etc. and eventually received permission. We started our walk around 4:00 pm and came down in the waning twilight with Lionel and our guide, Emmanuel. It was a really nice walk, but there were a lot of logistics involved and we ended up shelling out 30,000XAF to Emmanuel and the chief - or around $50 USD.

After our meetings were complete, we headed down to a beach town called Kribi. The idea was that we would overnight in Kribi and then take a day trip to hike in a national forest called Campo Ma'an the next day. We stopped at the department of forestry the afternoon we arrived in Kribi to seek permission to enter the park, but were told we had to sign in from the town of Campo. We decided instead of heading down to Campo we would enjoy a nice lunch by the sea and leave early the next morning for Campo. Our intent was to leave at 6:00 am, drive for a couple hours, hike for a couple hours and return for lunch. We got up at 5:00 and were in the hallway at 6:00 along with Lionel, our guide. However, our driver, Martin, and car were nowhere to be found. We waited until 8:00, and then Martin arrived. Even though we were starting later than anticipated, we still had plenty of day ahead. The first 30km of road was great - well paved down to the new port being constructed in Kribi. After that, we entered the dirt road, which was more mud than dirt due to being in the tail end of the monsoon. The car rolled through deep mud puddles and over dodgy bridges. Three hours later, we passed a sign saying the town of Campo was 40km ahead. I asked Lionel if he was SURE that we could still get there, hike and return within the confines of the day. He said yes, so we continued. Six hours later, we arrived in Campo and found a ranger. He got in the car with us and took us to talk to the custodian, who was having lunch. But, he called ahead to the park office and someone said they would sign us in. So, we headed down to the park office, which was 1km away. As we made the last turn, we crossed a bridge and headed into another mud hole. This time, we got stuck! As much as we tried to go back and forth, we just got more stuck and the car covered in mud. Some villagers came and got us out after 30 minutes. We backed on to the bridge and they started washing our car off with river water. They found some damage to the plastic under the vehicle, so another villager crawled under and chicken-wired our underside back together. While this was happening, I approached Lionel and the ranger, who were having an animated conversation. I was told that after we signed in, there would be another 25km to get to where we could hike. It was 2:30 pm and would be completely dark at 6:00 pm. I said "absolutely not!", and we decided to head back. The ranger insisted it would be faster to take a logging road instead of the highway, even though it was 50km longer. He led us out on a dirt bike and we arrived back in Kribi around 6:00 and started the 200km drive back to Douala after that. We got to Douala around 8:30 and had dinner at the hotel before crashing. This was yet another example of the eternal optimism around time :).

On Safari - Kenya and Tanzania


On Sunday, November 20, we flew to Nairobi via Bangui, Central African Republic. Bangui has been a site for refugees from the conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo, and there is a UN camp right off the tarmac.

We only spent the late evening in Nairobi, enjoying a relatively luxurious stay at the Sarova Panafric Hotel, which is highly recommended.

Monday, November 21

We drove from Nairobi to Lake Nakuru passing through the Rift Valley and enjoying the rainbows as the rain clouds cleared. We saw zebras, impalas and baboons all along the highway. We made a brief stop at a chapel built in 1942 by Italian POWs in Kenya. We enjoyed lunch at our hotel and then set out for an afternoon game drive.

We saw the following on our drive around Lake Nakuru: superb starling, long-crested eagle, zebra, Grant's gazelle, Thompson gazelle, impala, cape buffalo, waterbuck, lion, white rhino, black and white colobus monkey, vervet monkeys, guinea fowl, flamingoes, baboons, giraffes, warthogs, and Egyptian geese.



Tuesday, November 22

Tuesday was a transit day, where we drove into Masai Mara and stayed at Lenchata Tourist Camp. 

Wednesday, November 23

We woke up at 3:30 am to go hot-air ballooning on the Mara, followed by a champagne breakfast and a Loo with a View.

We had a very long game drive that followed and saw the following: ostrich, black-backed jackal, spotted hyena, banded mongoose, secretary bird, bee-eaters, bateleur, nile crocodile, elephants, lions, hippos, wildebeast, eland, gazelle, impala, Coke's hartebeast, topi, waterbuck, giraffe, zebra, warthog, cape buffalo, african hare, vultures, cranes, bustards, white-bellied kingfisher, souther ground hornbill, maraibou stork, lappet faced vulture, comorant, African harrier hawk, lilca breasted roller, red billed oxpecker, cattle egrets.

The interesting story from today is that two days prior, 5000 wildebeasts tried to cross the Mara river at their usual spot. However, the leader spotted some greener grass downstream from the typical exit point and led the heard that direction. Unfortunately, there was a steep cliff and 14m deep water at that point, and 1000 wildebeasts drowned. Their carcasses were floating in the river and every carnivorous bird from hundreds of miles around and all the crocodiles were enjoying a Thanksgiving feast!



Thursday, November 24

We had a 12 hour drive and somewhat difficult border crossing, but finally made it to Serengetti. I'm not sure why they don't set up immigration in the adjoining parks, but made us go all the way around. We did enjoy the views of the lusher coffee growing regions below the parks.

We also saw hundreds of elephants in the game reserve portion of Masai Mara, including a line of 14 that passed right by our vehicle!

There was a HUGE rain just as we were entering Serengetti with Ozzie, our new guide. He did spot a leopard in the grass, which Rick saw and I didn't. Then, I spotted a dikdik. We bedded down in Serengetti Wilderness Camp, which was significantly nicer than Lenchata.



Friday, November 25

We did an all-day game drive in Serengetti. It was a predator kind of day. We found a couple leopards in trees, 2 cheetahs under trees, and one chasing a gazelle that had 4 cubs! It was also a giraffe kind of day - we saw many dozens of them - males and females and caught some eating.

Saturday, November 26

Another game drive passed in the Serengetti today. We found lions in a tree, a leopard with a hyena in a tree, caught zebras having sex and another big rain. In the evening, we arrived on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater and Rhino Lodge - also highly recommended. We had to pay the park fees, as wire transfer did not happen between our Kenyan tour company and the Tanzanian tour company. It was $454 for 24 hours in Ngorongoro, and pretty much cleaned out our available cash!



Sunday, November 27

We had our game drive in Ngonrongoro and saw a couple new things: reed buck and black rhino.

We found a huge pride of lions after we followed a feeding couple back to their den. We witnessed lion sex and a group of cubs hidden behind the obvious part of the den - thanks to a ranger studying the wildlife that called our guide.

Following our drive, we headed down to Arusha for the remainder of our stay.



Monday, November 28

We met, Philipo - the fiance of a former cycling team mate, Emilie. Emilie was back in the states closing up her belongings and readying to move to Tanzania. Philipo picked us up at 8:30 at the Outpost Lodge, and we started a 25km walk to some waterfalls, across the city, through the outskirts and into villages high on Mt. Meru. We picked up 4 village boys who wanted to practice English and become guides. They escorted us across the creek crossings. One of the boys, Omega, knew quite a bit of Spanish and French also. We arrived back completely exhausted, but happy to have spent time in nature and on our feet.

Tuesday, November 29

Philipo met us again at 10:00. We made a town journey - to Masai Market, Arusha Natural History museum, the central market, where I paid an American price for some spices. We rode in a collective out to the Cultural Heritage museum, which is the largest collection of African art in the world. After lunch there, we headed back to town. We could not find a collective with space, but fortunately, an older German couple stopped and offered us a ride. Philipo headed home, and we headed for the airport, and the 30 hour journey home.

Friday, August 5, 2016

Berlin, May 2016



Photo album: https://www.flickr.com/photos/itinerantrick/albums/72157666677511654

I had the opportunity to travel to Berlin for business in May 2016. Of course, this meant a great opportunity for ItinerantRick to travel along and see the sights with me.

We arrived late in the evening on Thursday, May 26 and checked into the Radisson Blu hotel. Due to being travel-weary, we headed to the hotel restaurant for a late dinner. I enjoyed my first taste of Spargel season with 250g of white asparagus, black forest ham and boiled potatoes. A nice salad rounded out the meal. After dinner, we decided to stroll the 1 mile down to the Brandenberg gate from the hotel and caught some great photos of it in the twilight.

We got up super-early on Friday to do some sightseeing. First up was the Pergamon Museum, which has the Ishtar Gate and a bunch of early near-east artifacts. We spent a couple hours touring the museum and the collection. After that, we headed for our tour at the Parliament building called the Reichstag. It has a transparent dome on top that you can tour by pre-arrangement. The dome symbolizes government transparency since the unification. Following that, we went through the holocaust memorial and had currywurst for lunch at a restaurant near by. The last part of the afternoon was spent at the National Museum, which featured German impressionists and some more well-known impressionists.

Friday evening, I made my appearance at the IATA Hackathon to present the LinkedIn APIs for developers to use. I stayed until around 9:00 pm answering questions and then Rick came by and we walked for a late dinner at a local rotisserie - Rotisserie Weingrün. The most memorable part of that meal was the smoked ribs we ordered.

Saturday, I was at the hackathon until noon and Rick went to see the Topography of Terrors and the memorial at the Berlin Wall where many died trying to cross.

In the afternoon, we hightailed our way to the Eastside Gallery to view the section of the Berlin Wall that's been turned into an art gallery. The murals were really cool, though they put up some fencing around them that made photography difficult. While waiting for the train back, we heard some great local hip hop pouring out of a building near the station.

We had an early dinner at a local place near the hotel, Emmas, known for "schnitzel the size of your head". That was certainly the case, and we shared a single portion! Best schnitzel ever. I spent the closing hours of the evening at the hackathon working with the developers.

Sunday, I spent the entire day at the hackathon, but Rick spent more time walking around town. We were able to share lunch at a local Biergarten - Zum NuSSbaum. After the finalists were announced, we headed out and across town where we enjoyed dinner at the oldest Biergarten in Berlin - Praeter Garten. It was threatening to rain, so we secured a seat under the canopy. That was a good call, as a heavy shower cleared out the place mid-meal. I enjoyed a schwartzbier for my beverage.

Monday, we got to see some sights all day. We spent the early morning at the DDR museum, the church across from our hotel and in the local park. Then, we went up into the Fernsethurm or Telespargel to enjoy lunch with a 360 view. We got a time lapse video of our meal with a huge thunderstorm rolling in.

After a brief rest, we decided to be super-touristy and took a boat along the river and enjoyed a gelato while we were waiting.

Tuesday, we had a nice walk through the center of town before packing up and heading for the airport. It was a fast and furious trip, but we certainly enjoyed our first visit to Berlin.


Sunday, November 1, 2015

Alps, Balkans, and Oktoberfest 2015

aka - Tour of Former Olympic Venues  OR Tour of Wars of the 20th Century


View Full Photo Stream on Flickr



We red-eyed to Munich nonstop on Lufthansa, leaving SFO at 8:50 pm and landed around 5:05 pm on Sunday, Sept. 6, 2015.

The airport had a giant courtyard between terminals with the requisite Biergarten. Alas, we didn't stop facing a two hour drive in a sleep deprived state.

Getting the rental car was fairly easy, as was the drive to Innsbruck. We averaged 120kmh, though sometimes drivers passed in the left lane at double out speed.

We drove south, the setting sun alighting the alps in late summer splendor. They came into view just a few minutes out of Munich. I was wanting a soundtrack of Rachmaninoff or Chopin, or perhaps a local like Handel to accompany the drive.

We arrived in Igls just above Innsbruck at 7:50 and found the restaurant at Bon Alps open. They had an Italian buffet, which was serviceable, but not great. We had salad, carrot soup, veggies and lasagna with overtones of nutmeg. The tiramisu was well above average.

We arrived at the Gasthaus Sonnehoff at 9:30 and got to a well deserved rest around 10:30. It is a clean and pleasant spot, though certainly not luxurious.

September 7



We had a nice, typical breakfast at the Gasthaus and the headed into the center of Innsbruck to spend the morning.

We parked near the center and then walked along the river on both sides. The tram up the mountain didn't seem worth it, because the peaks were shrouded in clouds. So, we walked up along the funicular line to the first stop. It was part of a 10k winterweg route In season.

After the hike, we headed back to the old town and walked around attempting to avoid the large tour groups. We visited the Church of St. Jakob and then headed for lunch at the local Biergarten. We had the special, which was knodel soup and spatzle with spek, mushrooms and cheese. We added green salad for a hit of veggies.

After lunch, we headed for Brenner Pass and the drive to The Pustertal, home of Dobbiaco/Toblach and the Tre Cime/Dreizinnen hike we've been wanting to do. The mountains came into view about 30 minutes out and made my heart sing. After checking into the Toblacherhof Hotel, we walked through town and got a coffee at Cafe Marlene.

We had a nap and reading time before heading to a return (having eaten there in 2011) dinner at Pizzeria Hans. I had the prosciutto and mushroom pizza with salad and we shared a bottle of local Lagrein wine. All in all, it was a great day.

September 8



We had a marginal breakfast at the hotel and then started up toward Tre Cime. We paid the exorbitant 22 Euro toll to park so we could do the shorter route and test our legs.

As soon as I stepped out of the car, I was choked up with the beauty of the place - a reminder why this is my favorite place in the world so far.  We started out clockwise to avoid the crowds which were headed counterclockwise. We had a small climb to a saddle where we could start to see the face of the peaks. Then, a descent followed to a small Refugio. We could see Locatelli in the distance, but the sign said 1 hour. That seemed a long estimate. But, we had another climb to a saddle and a big descent to a deep meadow and then a steep climb back to the Refugio for lunch. 1 hour, 5 minutes.

Lunch was polenta with peppers and bratwurst, though not veal brats. They were pork or venison. I also had a radler to drink.

After lunch, we had a small climb to the last view of the peaks before turning around the front side and a return to the start. At the end, we had a strong cup of coffee before driving back to the hotel where we napped before having a massive Tyrolian platter of pork and other local specialties at the Hotel Nocker restaurant. We will be back at pizzeria Hans tomorrow.

September 9



We decided to take an "ass kicker" hike that would give us another glimpse of the Tre Cime. We left from the town of Sexten on route 102 then split to the left up 103 through some switchbacks up the side of a massif and then into a narrow canyon ascending above a knife edge peak. We climbed 3000 feet in about 3 miles after a mile or so of flats to the start of the climb.

We stopped at Refugio Comici for some coffee and apfelstrudel. After the refuel, we started the two hour hike to Dreizinnenhütte (aka Refugio Locatelli), turning off on route 101 around the summit. We crossed a high plateau and entered a huge amphitheater of stone leading to the hütte, crossing a narrow scree field along the way.

For lunch I had some faro pasta filled with chanterelle and cheese in butter and topped with goat cheese and mushrooms. Delish. We caught a gloomy view of the Drei Zinnen in a cloak of clouds before turning down route 102 back toward the start. The descent was slow and undesirable as most are for me. I had a small spill and gashed my elbow. But, we made it back before the time estimates, nevertheless.

After a rest, we retuned to Pizzeria Hans for dinner. I had pizza with prosciutto, egg and asparagus and a side salad.

Today was probably the most beautiful day hike I've taken in the Dolomites - all around spectacular.

September 10



We had a leisurely morning before packing up the car to head out for our next destination - Slovenia!

The drive was estimated around 2.5 hours, give or take. We had to stop just before entering Austria to get our "vignette", a toll sticker, we had failed to get earlier that we were lucky to not get caught without.  After a brief stop in Villach, Austria at a wursthaus called Josef for lunch, we got our Slovenia vignette and headed for the border.

There was a 8km tunnel through the mountains to Slovenia and only a short drive in the freeway before hitting mountain roads in search of Lake Bohinj. We made a pass through Bled, the more popular tourist destination, and then 15 minute later arrived at Hotel Jezero on Lake Bohinj. We had a gelato and coffee (kava) with cream before taking a tour through the village church of St. John the Baptist. The church was small and quaint - just the way I like them.  It dates from the 13th century.

After the small stop, we walked for a bit along the lake - as much as my toe blisters would allow before heading back for dinner. Dinner was included as we had half-board at the hotel. It was pretty good with a nice variety of veggies and meats and sides. I had fish with asparagus, salad and steamed veggies and a tiny bit of steak and fries. I had a honey cake for dessert, which is similar to baklava. I also had strawberries gratin, which were cooked under a layer of spongy cheese - different but good.

September 11




Our planned hike today was up from the Sport Hotel to Debela Peč peak and back. The drive there was a bit exciting with less than one lane roads and blind corners, but we made it without significant opposing traffic.

The beginning of the hike was in deep conifer forest. We found lots of ladies out foraging for mushrooms. Then. After a few km, we emerged on a meadow with a tiny village without road, power or running water called Planina Javornik. From there the hike climbed more steeply to Planina Lipanca, which had a mountain hut. We had goulash there with root veggies, barley and beans. We then headed up another couple km toward Debela Peč. The footing was quite bad with scrambles mixed in. Plus, there was no view to be had as the peaks were socked in. So, we headed back down.

At the road, we found two Czech women who were hitching a ride down to the lakes, so we took them with us. They were university students in Prague taking masters in economics.

We had some "folded cake" after because we were hungry with our coffees.

With dinner we had some wine that we ordered called Dom ekonteric, which was pretty good. Otherwise, the meal was fairly standard.

September 12



We awoke to a dense fog but forecasted sun. Around 9:00 am, we headed up to the next village of Stara Fužina to start our hike up Rudnica - a lesser peak in the middle of the two river valleys that join at Bohinj. The hike up was brutally steep on a cowpath, reminding me of the walks in Ireland last year. But, every so often, there was a meadow with panoramic views of the surrounding peaks.

After summiting, we started down the other side of the mountain on single track. It was steep and dicey footing in places, but we made it down. A farmer helped us get back on track after we lost the path in the forest above Brod. Brod did not have meal service in town, so we continued along the cycling route that circled the mountain and followed the river back to Stara Fužina and then down to Ribčev Laz.

We had beers, grilled panini and gelato for lunch outside the hotel. Then, we retired for showers and naps before dinner.

September 13




Today we left Slovenia just after breakfast and headed toward Croatia. The first part of the journey was fast to Lublijana where we switched rental cars painlessly at the airport.

Then we continued for another hour or so on major highways after crossing the border to Croatia. We had lunch at a chain restaurant and hotel complex off the freeway. It was sweet pepper stuffed with meat and a side of veggies and potatoes - a big plate of food for around 8 Euros.

We got on more minor roads for the second half of the journey to Plitvice Miric Inn, just south of Plitvice national park.

After checking in, we walked to the neighboring town and had coffee at the local ski resort, which was more of a bunny hill.

In the evening, we enjoyed a mixed meat platter at our hotel, which was massive with pork chops, lamb sausage, pork sausage and chicken along with many traditional sides and knodel soup and salad wrapping up with an apple and cherry strudel cake. It was a huge meal, but very good.

September 14



We walked the 2km up to the national park first thing in the morning. It was relatively easy to get tickets and start the program. We took a tram to the top of the park and started the walk back down to entrance 2. It was mostly cloudy, but the lakes and falls in karst created a magical fairy land - like something out of the Lord of the Rings.

It took about 6km of walking to return to entrance 2, with most of the best falls in the last 2km. From there, we caught a boat across the biggest lake and had lunch on the other side before heading down to the big falls. The last bit of walk was shorter, but packed with tour bus groups traveling the opposite direction. We were happy to get a couple pics of the big falls and start our walk out of the park. After a short tram ride, we walked the 2km back to our hotel. We were out around 6.5 hours and covered 25km, probably around 15 on foot. What a great day!

After a call to my mom for her birthday, we ended the night with the trout platter. That was the first time I've eaten a whole trout (and my bone removal skills confirmed it!)

September 15




Today was the biggest driving day of the trip. We had planned about 5 hours for driving, but it ended up closer to 6.

We continued south and fairly quickly came to the Bosnian border. We got an exiting Croatia stamp and an entering Bosnia stamp.

Soon, we saw the hillsides dotted with minarets instead of steeples. We spent a good chunk of the day driving through the Republika Srpska. As we were looking for lunch and a WC, I saw a restaurant on the left and pulled in. They didn't speak English at all, but had a few words of German, so we used that. We asked if we could drink and eat. The proprietor opened his smoker to show us a suckling pig and told us "five minutes" in German.  We had sparkling water and Rick had a beer while waiting. Then, they served us a big salad, pig and a whole loaf of bread. It was delish, and only cost 11 Euros total!

After getting stuck behind many tractors and logging trucks, we finally made it to Sarajevo. We spent some time walking around and watched a small basketball tournament and had coffee. The Ervin, our guide, picked us up for dinner at his house with his mother. We had many local dishes with them and ate to overfilled. They were refugees during the war and spent time in Croatia and Spain. They eventually came back to their apartment - tank shelling on the side and all (still visible today).

It was good talking to them. It seems for the more cosmopolitan city people, life under Tito in the former Yugoslavia was much better. They had a good standard of life and people from different religious groups got along quite well - even intermarrying a lot. Now, life is hard, officials are corrupt, and lines of religion are drawn more strictly. They thought maybe things were different for the country people, but they preferred life before the 90s.

September 16



After a nice breakfast at Hotel Colors, we walked back to the eternal flame to meet up with Ervin for our walking tour.  We started in the Austro-Hungarian part of the old town where a mortar struck down 26 shoppers in the early days of the Balkan war in 1992. Then, we went through the indoor dairy and meat market where we sampled some cheeses and smoked meats.

After that, we went to the produce market where another mortar hit near the end of the war in 1995. Then, we visited the main Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in quick succession.

Following those, we moved through the Ottoman part of old town into the Jewish quarter where we took a break for Bosnian coffees, served with Turkish delight. There are only about 500 Jews left in Sarajevo, but they played a big role in helping Bosniak refugees escape the city in the war.

Following coffee, we went to the corner where Archduke Ferdinand and his wife Sofia were assassinated starting the events leading up to WWI.

We ended with a visit to the main mosque and madrasah, which dates back to the 15th century.
After the tour, we had Burek or meat, cheese and veggies baked in a phyllo dough. We went with Ervin who had recommended the spot.  Following lunch, we walked up to the biggest Muslim cemetery from he war. It was sobering. 11000 citizens of Sarajevo were killed and the city went from being a diverse cosmopolitan place with 45% Muslim Bosniaks, 32% Serbs, and 10% Croats with other minority groups to 90% Bosniak and very economically depressed - now with 45% unemployment.

We went back through the market and I bought a necklace and earrings from a woman that does silver filigree. Then, we took a break at the hotel before heading out in the evening.  In the evening, we took some nice photos and then had apple cider before dinner. We went to another restaurant that Ervin recommended. I had veal and carrot soup and a cauliflower salad. It was a nice, light meal to follow too many heavy meat and bread laden affairs.

September 17



Today we drove from Sarajevo to Pelješac Peninsula. It was around a 5 hour drive.

We stopped halfway in Mostar and had lunch in the old city after getting lost a couple of times and ending up in one of those tiny cobbled streets where the car barely fits. I had to do a 100 point turn in someone's yard to get back out.

The food was good and we sat near an old bridge that did survive the war before making our way through the throngs of tourists across the "old bridge" that has been reconstructed. We saw a couple of divers jump off for tips before heading through the cobbled streets back to our car.

After lunch, our GPS directed us to the ferry for the shortest route. We arrived at 3:12 for the 3:15 ferry, but we didn't have a ticket. So, Rick had to do wind sprints to get the ticket and the captain thankfully waited for us.

We made the 1 hour crossing while having coffees. Then, we drove the last bit to our hotel. It had been a scorching 34-35 Celsius all day. We took a short walk along the waterfront before getting dressed for dinner, which we are at the hotel. We had a fish stew, salad and cheesecake along with the bottle of Montenegran wine Ervin had given us.

September 18



We had breakfast as early as we could at Hotel Indijan. Then, we headed out for our hike up St. Ilija mountain - the highest peak in that part of Croatia. It was already around 90 degrees before 9 am. So, we decided just to hike until we wanted to turn around. Around 10:30, we'd made about half he distance and 1/3 the climbing. The footing was getting challenging and I was concerned about getting sloppy as I got hot and sleepy. So, we turned around and descended the mountain.

We got back to town around noon and had a light lunch - salad, oysters and a yogurt smoothie. Then, we headed back for a swim in the Adriatic. We floated around for nearly an hour before heading back to our hotel for a clean up and laundry.

In the evening, we walked to a restaurant rated well in Trip Advisor, which was across town. I had risotto with shellfish and a salad. We shared some local wine before strolling back to the hotel for the night.

September 19



The morning started with a swim after breakfast in the ocean. Then, we piled in the car to head for Dubrovnik.

Our first stop was Violić winery where Boris, the wine maker, showed us his harvest and small operation. He explained how during the Tito years they gave their grapes to the state, so he is re-learning the winemaking craft that his grandfather passed on. We bought a 2013 Dingač and some grape candy with nuts.

Our second stop was Grgyč, who is famous in Yountville for beating the French winemakers in a competition in 1976. Their property was recently damaged by a wildfire. We bought a Pošip white.

We stopped for lunch in Mali Ston, a town fortified to protect the salt pans and known for oyster farms. I had fried calamari for lunch, which was perfection. I am spoiled for all other calamari now.

We then spent the final 40 minutes finding our apartment near the harbor in Dubrovnik. The parking space was "interesting" to fit into and our car still partly stuck out into the street. Oh well. We got settled, rested,  and had coffee and lemonade brought by the owner. The apartment "Cime" is small even by Manhattan standards, but is comfortable with good air conditioning.

In the evening, we walked to the old town and had dinner at Dalmativo, a recommendation on the Rick Steve's guide. I had mussels cooked in cream and they were fantastic. We walked back and had a bottle of white wine the apartment owner had given us.

September 20



We took the city bus to the old city for breakfast and dined just outside the gates. It was raining a bit during breakfast but let up.

The first city thing we did was buy a ticket to walk the walls. We spent around 90 minutes circling the city from above. It was a great walk. The skies were dark and dramatic against the orange tile roofs.

Following the wall tour, rain started coming down hard, so we ducked into a cafe for coffees under the awning.

Then, we went for a tour of the ethnographic museum to see how the southern Slavs of the Adriatic have lived over the centuries. During that tour, the rain stopped and the sun started peering out. We stopped for lunch at Komenič seafood - a Rick Steve's recommendation. I had the octopus salad.

Our last stop was at an exhibit of Dali illustrations including a set to illustrate the Vulgate as well as Dante's Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradiso. There were several that I really liked artistically.

In the afternoon, we rested and then went for dinner at a restaurant close to our apartment, which was pricey and good but not great.

September 21



We got up a bit early and looked for breakfast at a local spot so we would have time to catch the ferry to the island of Mljet for the day.

It was cool and breezy following yesterday's rain, but the sun was starting to come out fully. The ferry departed at 9:15, but didn't arrive on Mljet until 11 due to the rolling swells.

We bought our ticket into the national park and hiked our way to the larger of the two "lakes" on the island, which are really formed from a very narrow inlet.

We took the shuttle boat to the island of St. Marie in the middle of the lake where there is a ruin of a Roman monastery. We hiked around and looked at the ruins and enjoyed the restored church. Then, we had lunch by the water and waited for the next shuttle to take us to the smaller lake.

We stopped at the small lake for a swim as no powered watercraft are on that lake. It was warm and glorious. Some little fish were biting on my feet as I walked into the water. It was like a free Thai pedicure.

Following the swim, we hiked the longer route through a small village and back to where the ferry would pick us up to return to Dubrovnik.

Dinner was at a small local spot. I had the čevapi. We crashed a bit early after the long day.

September 22



We had breakfast around 8 at another local spot. Then, we decided to walk all morning and explore the Lapad peninsula. We walked for nearly 2.5 hours, exploring neighborhoods and the seaside walking path. It was sunny and a bit warmer than the previous day, but certainly not scorching.

We returned to our 'hood around 11:45 for a leisurely lunch at the local pizzeria. I had a tuna salad and mushroom pizza, knowing we would likely not eat a proper dinner with our travel schedule.

At 1:00 pm, we headed up to get our car and head for the airport. We just needed to gas it up before returning it. The first gas station in town was down for credit card payments, so we went to the other, which was under construction :( Finally, we decided to just head to the airport and look for one on the way. We were able to fill up about 9km from the airport. Phew!

Our first flight left at 4:40 and got to Zagreb at 5:40. The second flight left at 6:40 and got to Munich at 8:00 pm. We were able to successfully negotiate the train and streetcar to arrive at Das Hotel a bit after 9:00 pm.

September 23



We were hungry and so enjoyed our breakfast buffet at the Das Hotel. After eating, we headed out to walk to Marionplatz where our bike tour was meeting up. We arrived about 40 minutes early, so enjoyed an apfelstrudel and coffee at a cafe on the square.

At 11, we could not locate our group, so walked to the office of the company. They said the group wouldn't be assembling until 11:30. When we arrived back at the plaza, we found the group just as the rain was dissipating.

We had a brief lecture and then went to get our bikes. Our first stop was the residences of the Kings of Bavaria, reconstructed following WWII. Then, we went to a church built to honor the birth of an heir to the lineage. Following that, we rode to the seat of government, rebuilt in glass following the war. Finally, we stopped for a snack in the English garden and then went to watch the river surfers before ending the tour. Our guide, Tony, was from DC originally and moved to Munich to be with a woman he met in Thailand.

We had lunch at Haxenbrau, which specializes in pig and veal "knuckle". That was fantastic. We retuned to the hotel to change into warmer clothes before heading out to Oktoberfest.

Our trip to the get required a 45 minutes walk and we stopped to buy some Turkish delight on the way there. The fest was crazy - almost like a very packed state fair with games and rides in addition to the food stands and beer tents. After trying to find an inside table in two halls, we settled outside at Augustiner. We had 1 liter beers there before going to buy a half chicken and a pretzel. Then, we sat outside another tent to eat. Rick ordered another beer, but we only finished half or so and then decided we'd had enough of the monster crowds.

We walked back and partially sobered up, stopping for gelato on the way. I had dark chocolate ginger, which may be my new favorite flavor.

September 24



We caught the train after breakfast to Dachau, site of the first, and model, Nazi concentration camp. It was a forced labor camp targeted at political opponents and not geared toward extermination. However many cruel things happened there and many died as a result of their internment. Around 43,000 out of 250,000 who were ever there died - the lowest death rate in the entire camp system.

We toured for nearly four hours with a guide named Bernd, who is a retiree passionate about making sure nothing like that ever happens again.

After our visit, we headed to the train station and stopped for lunch at a hotel across the street. I was in detox mode so had a big salad with ox and water.

After a short rest, we headed out for dinner. Yelp assisted us in finding Alter Simple, where I had a fantastic schnitzel . Afterward, we went to BallaBeni again for ice cream. It was again superb.

September 25 - return day!



We had a short morning. After breakfast, we went next door to buy an apron I'd seen commemorating Oktoberfest, which I wanted for our tech chili cook off next week.

Following that, we went to the Brandenhorst museum across the street which had its entire Warhol collection on display - over 100 pieces including Portfolio Marilyn and Triple Elvis. It included some of his early drawings, two films and several episodes of TV that he made. My impression is that the silkscreen and paint pieces are his best, and the film stuff was just weird.

After the museum, we went to Burger House for a quick lunch and then headed to the airport. Coincidentally, after getting to our gate, we ran into my friend and former colleague Shannyn traveling home to Portland from Romania. What a fun day!

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Impressions of Bhutan

I've had a few weeks to let my travels sink in. Bhutan is probably the most interesting place I've ever traveled. It is like being in a parallel universe. There is nothing western about the place - except for the hotels where the tourists stay. You will not find a Starbucks anywhere in the country, and I hope it stays that way. These are some of the things I learned and impressions I had during our visit. It is an epically beautiful, mystical and enchanted place. I hope to return someday to the area.

Religion


To really understand Bhutan's culture, you have to first understand the religion and the history and mythos that surrounds it. Bhutan is the only place in the world to have Tantric Buddhism as a state religion. Beyond that, it is the Tanntric flavor of Buddhism, which is unique to Bhutan, parts of Tibet and a small pocket of India in Sikkim. The central and western part of the country practice the Kagyu Drukpa sub set of the Kagyu sect of Mahayana Buddhism - our tour guide called it "red hat school". For one thing, it was my first realization of how splintered Buddhism really is. Also, there is a big element of the much earlier Bom (animist) religion mixed in with Hindu cosmology.

Guru Rinpoche

Relief painting of Guru Rinpoche

Besides the historical Buddha, there are 3 main religious figures revered in Bhutan. The first is Guru Rinpoche, who arrived from India in the 8th century. While Buddhism was already somewhat established in the area, Guru Rinpoche really solidified it in the area and the "red hat school" in particular. He was said to be a manifestation of the historical Buddha and he subdued eight classes of demons. He is said to have arrived by turning his Tibetan consort into a tigress and flying to a cliff above the Paro valley where they meditated for 3 years, 3 months, 3 days. This is where that Taktsang Monastery is built in his honor. You may note that he had a consort, which is inline with the Tantric school of thought where union of male and female is spiritual - monks and nuns can marry. The Mahayana path is thought to be more broad and inclusive. Not all of the area was able to accept his teaching, so he hid away some Tantras in caves, which were discovered later. The guru is depicted in peaceful and wrathful or fierce forms - in total he has 8 manifestations, which are depicted in artwork in the temples. He is often pictured with his Tibetan and Nepalese consorts - sometimes in a "joined" position.
A wrathful manifestation of the Guru with the wheel of life

Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal


The three most important religious figures

The next important figure is Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal. In the 17th century, he fled Tibet and established himself in Bhutan. He freed the country from Tibetan rule and unified all the areas under a new form of government. He also repelled Mongol invaders several times. The government was dual monastic and civil. There is a Jhe Kempo, or head abbot, and a Druk Desi, or king. The government remained completely in this fashion until 2010, when a Constitutional monarchy was established with a prime minister being the secular head and the king a figure head. You can see the government reflected in the Dzongs, or fortresses and seats of government with half the fortress dedicated to offices and half to a monastic body.

Drukpa Kunley

Phallus on the corner of a building

The final important figure is the "Divine Madman" or Drukpa Kunley. He was a 16th century lama who was a bit irreverent. He "enlightened" 5,000 women by "blessing" them through, um, "union". He is known for subduing demonesses into protective deities by hitting them with his penis. As such, his symbol is the "flaming phallus". And, the Bhutanese have taken to it with great fervor. You will find phalluses painted on buildings in graphic detail, sometimes spurting, with ribbons, wings or flames adorning them. Also, you will find wood carvings of phalluses hanging from the cardinal corners of buildings or over the doorways or placed as decoration in a home.
Phallus paintings

Practices


There are some practices that I found unique to the area, though my knowledge of Buddhism is admittedly not very deep.

Memorial prayer flags


When someone dies, a few interesting things happen. First, the family will erect between 1-108 white prayer flags as a memorial. These flags are attached to young tree trunks and very tall. There is also thought to be a 49 day period where the person is in an intermediary state. This is somewhat akin to the Catholic idea of purgatory. The person is trying to find their way to heaven, hell or the next incarnation. They will meet many mythical beings that will help them reach either heaven or the next incarnation. These beings will scare those who are not familiar with them, so you will see them depicted all over the temples to create trust and familiarity for the intermediate stage. Also, the person will be cremated and a small piece of bone will be preserved. The family will place the bone in a miniature clay stupa (same a chorten, same as pagoda - a miniature temple) and the miniature stupa will be placed in a cave or other special meditative spot.

Miniature stupa effigies


At birth, children do not receive a name. When they are 8 days old, the family takes them to the local lama with an offering and they receive their name from the local lama. As such, a lot of people have the same name. So, last names are largely made up for differentiation.

Something from the earlier Bom religion pertains to building a new home or building. One must receive the blessing of the naga or serpent deities in the area. So, the local lamas are hired to do rituals to seek the blessing before the house is built. If you build without consulting the naga, you risk an illness falling on someone in the home or some sort of catastrophe.

Because the path is wide, sexual relations seem fairly open, within the heterosexual sphere. The government distributes condoms. Marriage is usually taken upon conception of a child and is not that rigid or sacred of a contract. Broken or open marriages and composite families are rather the norm than the exception. There is apparently a bit of homoerotic activity in the monasteries according to the New York Times, but no one would openly admit to that being common.
Puppies!

Dogs are revered as being the closest of the animal realm to humans in the wheel of life and reincarnation. So, many people feed stray dogs to accumulate karma. This results in an all-night symphony of barking dogs in any populous area.

Music at the festival


The important stories of the religion are passed to the people via all-day festival events called tshechus. We were lucky enough to attend a festival at the top of Do Chu La pass - it was quite a feast for the senses surrounded by the theater of the high peaks of the Himalayas.

Masked dance at the festival

During our time there, we witnessed a tshechu, naming ceremony, a death anniversary ceremony, a memorial flag ceremony and also the local monks chanting at the end of the day to appease the local deities. All of these ceremonies were accompanied with ample incense, which was omnipresent in the air. For me, the smell of Bhutan is the smell of incense tempered by the smell of trees.

Incense can be burned anywhere

Society


In 2010, the 4th king of the modern era established a Constitutional monarchy. He abdicated the throne and made his eldest son the figure head. Now, the people elect a prime minister. People don't seem all that excited about the voting thing. They liked their king and trusted him to act in their best interest. They don't seem to trust themselves. Also, there seems to be a general distaste for distention in the society which is stirred up with an election.
School girls in uniform

Everyone has access to health care and education. Elementary education is provided within approximately a one hour walk of all villages and is ensured by the government. Secondary education depends on test achievement or a family with enough resources to pay for a private school. Families who cannot even pay for books and uniforms typically send their children to the monasteries for a religious education.
wood carving students at arts and crafts school

Medical care is extremely basic. In the Haa valley, we visited the basic medial unit. They have 10 beds and one doctor for the entire valley. They don't have any testing facilities as their single x-ray machine was found to leak radiation - and only have access to a very limited range of pharmaceuticals. They do have ambulances, though travel across distances can take several hours for what would take 15 minutes here. And, some areas are only reachable on foot. The single doctor told us he travels on foot to make house calls to villages once per year. There is no medical training in country, so he was trained in Sri Lanka. Due to the relatively low level of education and lack of medical training, there is a severe shortage of doctors in the country. By our standards, one would only want to come down with a minor illness or injury in Paro and something relatively major like appendicitis could likely only be treated in Thimpu, the capital.

Rustic farmhouse in Haa

Most native Bhutanese have a decent standard of living as compared with the developing world. And, they live in relative harmony. Access to food is good. Many rural villages have access to electricity, television and some have indoor plumbing via rain harvesting or diversion of streams. In the cities apartments are spacious and have indoor plumbing, electricity and heating. Most rural areas use space heaters and the homes made of rammed mud have no insulation and no glass in the windows, so it is quite cold in the winter.

The worst standard of living is evident in migrant workers who maintain the infrastructure. The Indian Army is contracted to maintain the roads and many government buildings and they hire Bengali and Nepalese laborers for $1.50 a day to work. You see shanties constructed of corrugated metal or thatched bamboo erected by the side of the road where road crews live for months or years in squalor. The work is done in an extremely inefficient manner with small women, often with babies on their backs working on widening the road by taking a pick axe to the mountain side. I guess these inefficiencies can exist at $1.50 per day per person, which is apparently 3x what they would get in India for the same work. However, the roads show the lack of engineering and are in extremely primitive condition - often no asphalt, less than one lane with lots of vertical exposure and erosion. It is a good thing the Bhutanese are extremely patient and cooperative drivers, or catastrophe would be the rule of the day.

The Bhutanese have a co-dependent or symbiotic relationship with India. India maintains their infrastructure and provides agriculture and goods. Bhutan provides hydro-electric power to India and manual labor jobs for its citizens. Bhutan has a trade deficit with India in the $20 million dollar range. They seem to be aware of their vulnerability in the region, and their relationship with India seems largely a hedge against the fate of Tibet. They are very proud of their cultural and religious heritage and strive to protect it from the ever-encroaching world. After hydro-electric power, tourism is their biggest industry. They are working on developing infrastructure to support 50,000 tourists a year - up from 20,000 a year today. This will be a delicate dance to make sure that so many tourists do not dilute their unique culture.

Art, Food, Dress, Sport and Language


Art in the country is largely religious. Paintings are mostly Thankas, or depictions of the main religious figures and their manifestations. The paintings are beautiful and precise and very detailed. They are often approached as meditations by the students who are trained in the arts and crafts schools. Similarly, these are depicted in wood carvings and weavings.
Victory of good over evil banners

I've heard the decor described as "early over the top", which I find to be accurate. The spartan mountain landscape has led to a lot of brightly colored patterns all co-mingled together in ways that really wouldn't work anywhere else. And, of course, you will find phalluses thrown in everywhere for good measure. Art in temples and other buildings is often over the top in colors, done in an apocalyptic style with silk victory banners hanging all over in a myriad of colors and patterns.
Lady in a kira at the market in Thimpu

A lot of people wear the traditional dress. The woman in a jacket and long wrap skirt called a kira, and men in a short bathrobe-like garment called a gho. These are usually in vivid colors and patterns - again only working somehow in this mystical place.
High mountains
Conifer forest and rice paddies
The fertile Punakha River valley


The landscape is extremely varied, with the 200 mile wide by 100 mile high country having the elevation change from 700 feet to 22,000 feet. There are subtropics, high cloud forests, fertile river valleys, oak and confier forests and high alpine regions. The mountains are stunning and are made more beautiful with the adornment of ample trees - something that much of the Himalayan region is lacking. We were absolutely treated when a rare December snowstorm covered the middle peaks in white making the valleys seem truly magical for a couple of days.
typical food

The food is healthy and nutritious, though not very exciting. There is some Indian cuisine, which adds some variety. The staples are jasmine and red rice. They also grow buckwheat in the higher altitudes. They typically eat the rice several times a day with their national dish, which is chili cheese - a soupy warm cow's cheese with chiles stewed in it ranging from tepidly spicy to nuclear - one never knows until you try it. You will also find vegetables with the larger meals - typically stir fried fresh veggies or vegetables manchurian, which is tempura style. They have dumplings, called momos, which are like dim sum - mostly with veggies, sometimes with meat. And, some meals come with a stewed chicken or fish in gravy called a curry. The chicken is typically butchered in all sorts of strange ways, leading to a minefield of bones to avoid. They don't really do sweets, though they do like fruit - usually bananas, apples and oranges. After a few meals, I was ready for some more variety.

You better like tea if you go to Bhutan. You will get lots of it. For something different, try the butter tea with butter and salt. I found it pretty good. Coffee is almost exclusively Nescafe, and no, it does not taste any better after a few days. You can find a decent cup of coffee in one of two coffee houses in Thimpu or Paro.
Whiskey

If you are a fan of wine, this is not your place. The wine they produce ranges from moderately horrid to "gag me with a spoon". The beer is drinkable pilsner similar to most of what is found in the region - cheap and mostly unsatisfying. The arac, or grain "wine" or distillate, is pretty foul. It's like bad sake for the most part.  One shining exception is the grain whiskey. Their top shelf brand, K5 is a good mid-range whiskey by our standards, and being that it costs about $6 for a bottle, it's darn good. If you are more adventurous, you can try the local stimulant - betelnut. I did not try it as I try to stay away from known carcinogens.

Archery match


Archery is the national sport, practiced on very long fields with very tiny targets. Bows are made with bamboo and not extremely accurate. Men from opposing villages take on tournaments that last most of a day to several days. A hit on the target results in an elaborate dance. We witnessed a real tournament in Thimpu and a friendly match in Haa.

Stupa made of rock with script

The official language of the country is Dzongkha, which is not spoken anywhere else in the world. English and Dzongkha are taught in all the government schools. The way to greet someone is Kuzuzongpo or Kuzuzongpo-la to be more polite. It is a south-Tibetic language. The script is based on Tibetan.  The language is spoken in the center to western part of the country and many other hybrid languages are spoken in the east.