In The Now

It’s been over a month since I’ve uploaded a post and as I sit here writing, I can’t help but think, how many times in my life, have I stepped back and thought, “Wow. Where has the time gone?” I find that this happens more often the older that I get. Because of my tendency towards looking forward – always anticipating some time or event in the future – I don’t often feel that I do a good job of living in the present.

I enjoy having something to do and feeling productive, quickly moving from task to task on my To Do list, particularly at work. But what happens when there is no “next task,” and the only thing you have to do is be exactly where you are?

But before I continue my musing, let me update everyone on what we’ve been up to over the past month.

As you may remember, I was struggling with homesickness in Laos over the holidays and desperately missing my family. Dean and I could have easily stayed in Luang Prabang for several more days enjoying the cute town along the Mekong but we made plans to be in Bangkok over Christmas to take advantage of fast wifi to video chat with family. On Christmas Eve, I decided that if we couldn’t have potato cheese soup and kraut bierok (my family’s traditional Christmas Eve dinner), we would have the next best thing – burgers. So we returned to our previously scouted burger restaurant and I enjoyed my rare beef patty with mushrooms, brie, and garlic aioli with curly fries. A true luxury in Southeast Asia!

The next morning, Dean and I awoke saying “Merry Christmas” and I offered to go to the Starbucks on the ground floor of our building to get coffee while he relaxed and cooked breakfast. On our previous trip to Bangkok, I had gone in the Starbucks to borrow the free wifi and had noticed that they were selling travel French presses. Dean and I were both hankering for control over our daily coffee after too many mornings spent drinking expensive americanos (when we could find a coffee shop) or worse still, instant coffee (the horror!). I had purchased a hat at a brewery in Hanoi and successfully kept it hidden for two weeks and knew that adding a French press to Dean’s small Christmas hoard would be a big surprise!

So I returned to a breakfast of scrambled eggs, fresh cut papaya, yogurt with granola, large Starbucks coffees, and a piece of blueberry cheesecake (because why not?). And after eating our breakfast feast, we exchanged gifts. I really enjoyed seeing the surprise on Dean’s face when I presented him with the hat and French press and my present was a super adorable card, originally purchased before the trip and carried for 2 months as well as the promise of a spoiling spa day.

We spent the next few hours, calling our families back home who were enjoying their Christmas Eve and then went out to shop for toiletries and get haircuts. It sounds rather underwhelming however, after the limited options in the smaller cities, it was a treat to find several luxuries like body butter and a pumice stone.

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Alley Barberbox

Dean found a street level barber shop in an alley, while I looked on my phone for a cheap salon. I finally found a place I thought would work and we entered an older, four story mall that now sold nothing but golf equipment and accessories. Seriously. Every store and open area was packed with rack upon rack of golf clothes, clubs, bags, etc. Imagine my surprise when I found a pair of really nice no-show athletic socks for $1.00USD a pair! When I was younger, I would have hated to get socks for Christmas, however after 2 and a half months of traveling, again, with a limited and often low quality selection of everyday items, I was beyond delighted to get cheap, high quality socks.

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Korean Christmas Dinner

The remainder of the afternoon was filled with Thai massages, laundry, and a massive Korean BBQ for dinner. It was the perfect Christmas Day!

In the afterglow of Christmas, we repacked our bags to get ready for our 5 day scuba diving trip, living aboard the boat over the New Year. We had scheduled this trip at the end of October while in Nepal, shortly after being defeated in trekking to Everest base camp. In preparation for the diving on the liveaboard, we had traveled to Havelock Island in India to get our PADI Advanced Certification and for two months was the only truly fixed commitment on our calendar.

Flying through Phuket, near the south end of Thailand, we arrived in Khao Lak – a small beach town that is just now being developed for tourism – the embarkation point for liveaboard boats traveling to the Similan Islands.

Our boat, called the Oktavia, is Swedish owned with room for 20 divers, the accompanying Thai crew and (primarily Spanish) dive instructors. Over the next 5 days we would be living, traveling, and recovering on the boat in between our 19 dives, allowing us to enjoy some of the most beautiful dive sites in SE Asia.

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Diving Liveaboards at Port South of Khao Lak

Aboard were a mix of German, Swiss, Italian, Aussie, Dutch, Spanish and Chinese divers. Everyone spoke English and most of us enjoyed chatting during the short breaks between dives, swapping scuba stories and learning about life in other countries.

Over the following 5 days, we enjoyed some of the best reefs and most interesting underwater wildlife that I’ve ever seen. While all of the dives had their own charm, the best dives were by far those at Richelieu Rock, a small pinnacle in the middle of the Andaman Sea, closer to Myanmar than Thailand. Because the pinnacle is located so far from any other reef, the site is teeming with diverse wildlife using the pinnacle as shelter in the surrounding abyss of ocean. We did three dives here and each time, it felt like we were immediately dunked into a fish tank (or fish soup, as Dean fondly calls it).

Our days took on a consistent routine of waking up at 6:00am to enjoy the sunrise and drink our (French-pressed!) coffee with pre-dive toast. The boat only had instant and we were the subjects of much envy by having the ability to make real coffee. We then would meet for a dive briefing and were in the water by 7:30/8:00am. After our first dive, we would eat breakfast, relax for an hour or so and then it was time for another dive. We would then eat lunch, take an hour long siesta (well, I did at least) and then it was time for another dive. Then time for an afternoon snack, another couple of hours of down time (a possible second nap for Krista) and our choice of a sunset or night dive. Dinner was each night at 7:30pm, and we’d hang out afterward for a few beers, a little conversation, and were in bed by 9:00pm to do it all over again the next day.

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Morning Coffee Onboard the Oktavia

There was a slight change to the schedule on New Years Eve as the mood on the boat was festive and after dinner, most people continued hanging out after their requisite two beers. Towards 9:00pm, we migrated to the captain’s quarters at the front of the boat where the Thai crew had apparently been celebrating for several hours. The party was in full swing with each person receiving a shot of liquor being poured out of a jar filled with what appeared to be wood chips. Upon entering the small apartment, I was immediately handed a glass filled with the noxious liquid and dutifully took the shot. Dean hung out behind me at the doorway and therefore dodged the bullet.

Over the next hour or so, the cabin became more and more crowded as word of the party spread throughout the boat and more of the group decided to join, jumping up and down to the Thai techno music and shouting people’s names when handed a shot. It reminded me of the college parties we used to throw in Laramie.

We decided to leave the small cabin as the Thai’s broke out the silly string, almost hitting me in the eye and risking explosion as people were smoking and the stuff is highly flammable. This is about the time when Dean threw in the towel and headed down to the cabin, while I stayed on the main deck, dancing with the group who was slowly migrating out to the larger space.

At around 10:30pm, I also decided to head to bed. The party however continued and we woke up briefly at midnight to the sound of fireworks and people crying, “Happy New Year.” I reached over to Dean, gave him a long kiss and whispered, “Happy New Year indeed.”

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Sunrise Diving at the Similan Islands

Upon arriving back to shore the night of our fifth day, we said good-bye to our amazing dive crew and were packed into vans to be dropped off 2.5 hours south in Patong, Phuket. I had booked an AirBnB with a kitchen and laundry facilities as I knew we were going to need a few days of downtime after the boat. What I hadn’t anticipated was that the apartment was spread across two cramped levels, with an awkward spiral staircase leading down to the bedroom whose floor to ceiling windows looked out onto a brick wall. The kitchen had the bare essentials for cooking and it was located in a quiet area with only one restaurant within walking distance, meaning that we had to rent a motorbike to go down to Patong, a super touristy, party going beach town (think Cancun on steroids), to buy groceries or find meals.

Both Dean and I were in sorry shape as he broke his toe on the last day of the liveaboard and I was struggling with land sickness, feeling the rolling of the boat every time that I moved. To make matters worse, I had come down with food poisoning, resulting in a night of fever and stomach cramps, leaving me weak and cranky the next day. I spent the entire day in bed, eating soda crackers and wanting to go home. Up until this point, I had been dealing with bouts of homesickness but I hadn’t been serious about going home early. As I laid in the uncomfortable bed, looking at the brick wall, all I could think about was how much I hated this place and how much I wanted to be back in my own house, in my own bed, cuddling the Bodeman for emotional support.

While packing up that night, Dean and I talked about the impact that your surroundings can have on your well being. Because I’ve lived in my own house for 7 years, I’m don’t often stay in spaces that I find uncomfortable. Even with all of the traveling that I did in 2016 for work, I became very accustomed to the average hotel room set up and could deal. But there was something about feeling wretched in this apartment that exacerbated the situation and I couldn’t wait to leave the next day.

Upon arriving in Chiang Mai, I could already tell something was different. For starters, the apartment was spacious with a comfortable king bed, full kitchen, and a balcony overlooking a large Buddhist Wat with the mountains in the distance. I immediately found a large, Western style grocery store and even though I didn’t recognize half of the items on the shelves, I was able to find fixings for fajitas. Because we eat out for the majority of our meals, I get really excited when we find an AirBnB that has a kitchen and even better yet, has the necessary pots, pans and dish-ware to cook a full meal. It’s a small thing but I truly miss the full ownership of what I put in my body as well as the catharsis of cooking.

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View from Our Balcony in Chiang Mai

Over dinner, we planned out what to do with our 10 days in Chiang Mai. Both Dean and I were excited to interact with elephants, explore the Old City, visit the weekend markets, drop into some trendy coffee shops, and spend time recovering from our hectic couple of weeks. Since I was still feeling poorly from my bout of food poisoning and struggling with land sickness, we took the first few days easy, hanging out at local restaurants and reading in the sunny apartment.

On the third day, we woke up early for an hour and half long ride in the back of a ‘tuk-truck’ with 8 other people to visit the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, an organization that has rescued over 90 elephants and keeps them at 10 different sites, or camps, that are open daily for visitors. We joined a group of 15 or so other people and commenced our half day elephant interaction.

Our guides started by explaining the history of elephants in Thailand. First, elephants are indigenous to the area, many having been caught and used in the logging industry or trained for third rate circus shows. They were treated very poorly, and often repeatedly beaten with hooks to control behavior. In 1989, Thailand outlawed the use of elephants as beasts of burden, improving conditions for the animals but also leaving the owners with the conundrum of how to care for the expensive animals. During this time, many sanctuaries were started, promoting ecotourism to fund daily care and feeding while allowing visitors up close interactions with these beautiful creatures. Each elephant has a companion, or mahout, that seems to be the primary care giver.

They then wheeled out a large cart (about the size of a chest freezer) filled with whole bunches of bananas and cut pumpkins and we were advised to grab as many bananas as possible to make friends with the 6 elephants that make up the “family” that lived in the camp. At first, the large animals were a little intimidating. But after several trips to the cart, we became comfortable with the huge beasts and enjoyed feeding, petting and taking selfies.

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Hanging Out with the Elephants

After feeding time, we moved down to a small damned off pond where the goal was to spread wet mud on the hides of the animals as it’s good for their skin. I was a little skeptical however 4 of the elephants stood in the pond while we smeared them (and ourselves) with mud, and if they didn’t enjoy it, at least they tolerated it. Two of the mahouts let us know that their elephants didn’t particularly enjoy the mud, which I thought demonstrated their care for the animals themselves rather than simply providing a show for the tourists.

Next we made our way down to the a small river where the elephants spent 30 minutes washing off the mud and playing in the water. It was amazing to watch them interact, poking each other with their trunks and rolling around, sometimes on top of each other.

After the bath, it was time for us to eat lunch and we enjoyed a small buffet of curry, rice and fresh fruit. There were several pieces of fruit that I hadn’t eaten and therefore I asked if I could feed it to one of the elephants who was lounging nearby in the shade of a wooden platform where many of the mahouts were hanging out. Sensing that I had a treat, the elephant raised its’ trunk through the platform, seeking. We then spent the next several minutes feeding our leftover fruit through the platform. It’s lucky that Dean got a video as it’s one of the best moments of my life.

Overall, our time in Chang Mai was great. We’d gotten over the hump of homesickness around the holidays and recovering from our action packed New Year not to mention the benefits of a number of amazing experiences: hanging with elephants, taking a Thai cooking class, experiencing world famous latte art, eating street food at a packed night market, sampling the northern Thai cuisine (can you say Khao Soy?!), and enjoying nightly sunsets from our balcony.

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Chiang Mai Thai Cooking Class

We also had plenty of time to plan the next leg of our trip. I had originally wanted to end our time in SE Asia with a trip to Bali, imagining myself having a life changing experience like Liz Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) in the idyllic rice pattied jungle. However a large volcanic eruption had occured in November and people were uncertain if the large Mount Agung was finished causing problems. So we looked into several other island nations that would allow us to go diving, but after a little research we decided volcano be damned.

One of the amazing dive instructors on our liveaboard, a Catalonian ex-lawyer named Pato, had given us the contact information for two friends who are currently running a dive shop in Lembongan, a small island 45 minutes fast boat ride from Bali. So we reached out to Dani and Anna and sent a down payment for a 6 days of diving at Two Fish Dive Resort.

We arrived in Bali at 1:30am and narrowly avoided catastrophe. The volcano didn’t erupt or anything, but while waiting for our backpacks to make their way around the carousel, someone grabbed my bag. It was an honest mistake as his bag (identical to mine) came around on the carousel a minute later. I didn’t notice until I picked up the bag and I realized that my hiking boots were not protruding from the front pouch. Dean, being the fast thinker, grabbed the backpack and sprinted through the crowd, catching the guy just before he exited customs to switch bags.

Two days later, we arrived in Lembongan. After getting settled, we meandered out to the beach for dinner and to enjoy a beautiful sunset over the water. Unbeknownst to us, this was the only sunset that we would see during our stay in Bali.

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Ferry Boats Heading to Nusa Lembongan

The next day, we woke early to eat breakfast and head out on the boat for our first day of diving. Considering this is rainy season, and therefore low season for tourism, there were only 4 divers on the boat. While it was raining on the surface, we enjoyed diving the shelved reefs on the North side of the island, looking at prestine hard and soft corals and the multitude of fish that live in the vibrant landscape.

Over lunch, we were introduced to Meg and Sal, two Americans from LA, who are going to run the Two Fish in Gili Air, a nearby island. A year ago, Meg and Sal had been on a similar journey, having quit their jobs and deciding to travel SE Asia. They started diving and couldn’t stop, deciding to become Scuba Instructors instead of going home and picking up their lives in food service (Sal is a chef). We heard a similar story from Dani and Anna, who have rented out their apartment in Barcelona for the last 12 years while working in dive shops across the globe. It definitely gave us food for thought and an interesting topic of discussion over dinner each night. Could we leave behind our lives in the US? This trip was supposed to be a temporary sabbatical, but what if we decided to make it permanent?

The next day, we went to see the mantas. Lembongan is famous for two dive sites, Manta Bay and Manta Point, both areas highly frequented by the manta rays who live around the island year round. Mola mola, or sunfish, are also common here but only during the high season as they prefer colder waters.

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Reef Mantas Crossing

We got a reminder that it was rainy season as the seas were very high and we spent the 30 minute boat ride being pelted with rain. However upon arriving in Manta Bay, our boat crew spotted three mantas so we quickly got ready and rolled into the water. Throughout the dive, we were rewarded with multiple sightings of mantas and it was amazing to see the size (some are as large as 6 meters/18 feet across) and majesty of these gorgeous creatures.

We got to see mantas twice during our 6 days of diving in Lembongan. We were also rewarded with the only mola sighting in the last 2 months and one of the best dives that I’ve done done, called Mangrove. Imagine a seemingly endless reef, brightly colored with bulbous corrals and technicolor fish of all sizes in every direction. Every few minutes, you stumble upon something of note: a turtle swimming directly in front of you, an octopus hiding under a large shell, purple puffer fish, and so much more. It was an experience I will always remember.

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Off-Season Mola Mola Getting Cleaned by Bannerfish

After Lembongan, we traveled to Ubud. A small, inland town located in the jungle and rice patties and the yoga and health food capital of Bali. This is the area featured in Eat, Pray, Love and the idyllic scenery in the movie is what inspired my desired to find a beautiful AirBnB and hang out for a week of relaxation, reflection, and writing. The only problem is that the bungalow we rented was a little too nice, and instead of posting up at the large community dining table to write every day, I decided to sit by the pool, reading. To be fair, the weather was extremely hot and in order to survive (I’m a cold weather person by nature), I required constant dips in the pool and typing while wet seemed like a bad idea.

Better yet, let me take full ownership for my decision. I didn’t feel like writing. I felt like sitting around, enjoying the jungle environs and infinity pool by sitting on a lounge chair, reading and napping in between dips in the water and working on my tan. I felt like relaxing with the only pressing concern of what to eat when hungry.

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Jungle Bungalow

How often in my life have I had the luxury of an empty calendar? Sure, every weekend or vacation I have the choice of doing nothing but there’s always a part of my brain that is thinking about my commitments on Monday, or how much work I’ll have when returning. In Bali, I’d seemed to have hit a sweet spot where I truely was in the moment, fully relaxed and enjoying every second as it came.

It’s a new sensation for me, and one which I realize is very important for me to learn. Otherwise, I run the risk of living a life of planning, constantly anticipating that next thing, instead of simply enjoying the moment that I’m in. Because one of my biggest fears is to look back at the end of my life and think, “Where did the time go?”

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Laid Back in Laos

There I was, sitting on a rustically built bamboo bridge with my feet dangling in the water of a pristine pool, fed by three different waterfalls, when I’m struck by the thought, “Is this my life?” This place is magical. No wonder it’s flooded by thousands of tourists everyday, packing the hiking trails to take pictures in front of the three different sets of large falls, swimming in the pools, and eating in the restaurants and picnic areas set up around the park. But yet again, Dean and I have diverged from the masses and managed to find a deserted piece of paradise that we have all to ourselves.

Since arriving in Laos, I have been thinking about my life and how I’m choosing to live it. It’s been just over two months since we left the US and up until now, it’s felt like we were on an extended vacation. We’ve seen the two places that we wanted to share with each other (Nepal and India), and now we are traveling with no major plans, choosing destinations that appeal to us as we research different countries.

Our only current commitment is in Thailand on December 29th – January 3rd, as we are going to be scuba diving four times daily, living aboard a boat in the Andaman Sea. So we decided to visit Vietnam and Lao in the 2 weeks prior to our liveaboard. Instead of traveling to multiple destinations, barely skimming the surface of each place, we decided to spend a week at one location in each country.

The main reason is that it allows us to really get the feel of a place, exploring new areas and things to do. But also, traveling can be an exhausting business. We’ve learned that moving from place to place involves a large time commitment. Think about it, you have to:

  • Pack bag & check out of hotel/AirBnB
  • Travel to the airport, bus or train terminal
  • Wait in line to check-in for your flight
  • Go through security
  • Board & Deboard
  • Pass immigration & customs
  • Travel from the airport/bus or train terminal
  • Check in to hotel/AirBnB & unpack your bag

It’s a commitment of at least 5 hours, not including the actual time it takes you to travel from Point A to Point B. And going through that process every couple of days means a lower percentage of your time is spent enjoying each destination.

So when researching where to go in Lao, we happened upon Luang Prabang. Roughly 25,000 people live in this World Heritage site, recognized for it’s outstanding examples of the fusion of colonial French architecture and traditional Lao building. It is known for it’s countless Buddhist temples, some dating back to the 16th century. It’s nestled in the mountainous highlands of Northern Lao, where the Nam Khan River joins the Mekong, providing a port for travelers taking the slow boats from upriver Thailand. The numerous streams that feed the Nam Khan have left lime deposited on the hillsides, creating numerous waterfalls and the Laotian people have capitalized on the natural beauty by marketing tours to visit the attractions.

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Young Monk at the Mekong River

Earlier in the week, we had taken advantage of a hiking/kayaking tour to the smaller Tad Sae waterfalls. We left the tour office at around 9:00am, packing our group of 10 into the back of a tuktruck – the bed of a small, single cabbed pickup with seats and roof welded into the sides. We then drove 45 minutes into the mountainous countryside, arriving at a bamboo bridge spanning the river, leading to a local village. The locals rebuild these rickety bridges after the rainy season each year and make no qualms about slowly motoring scooters to cross.

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Bamboo Bridge over the River Nam Khan

We then received a tour through the village which housed roughly 84 different families from three different tribes; Hmong, Lao and Khmu. On the far side of the village, we happened upon a group of men, burning the hair off a freshly slaughtered pig. Three men held lit bamboo twigs and were charring the hair while another man used a hoe to scrape the skin clean.

During the Hmong new year, members of the outlying villages travel to Luang Prabang to celebrate, dressing up in traditional clothing, cooking traditional food, and catching up with relatives. The unmarried girls and boys participate in a number of games, with the intent of finding a mate. According to our Hmong guides, many young people will find someone from the opposite sex who catches their eye and they will exchange phone numbers. Courtships can last several years but many are very short, lasting only days in order to take advantage of the auspicious dates just after New Years. These gentlemen were preparing an age old custom where the groom’s family will kill and butcher a pig to then serve to the bride’s family as a gift. Upon hearing this, I gently nudged Dean and told him that my mom is still waiting for her bacon.

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De-hairing the Wedding Pig

We then kayaked several minutes down the river and walked up a steep embankment to enter the park housing the waterfalls. The locals have built this place with the intent of taking advantage of every tourist dollar available. There was an elephant village, where a handful of pachyderms were standing under a sheltered roof, harnessed into their riding platforms for the day so that tourists can ride them through one of the pools. Understanding that most of these animals are treated poorly as babies in order to be “tamed” for tourists, we quickly moved past this attraction to the actual falls themselves.

Several permanent structures have been built to house the many restaraunts, shake shacks and convenience stores selling snacks, cold beverages and beers. A coffee shop sporting a hanging bridge and large deck is built over the lowest pools and a number of wooden walkways and covered huts are provided for the picnickers. Most of the walkways have stairways to provide access for swimming in the different levels of pools and it appears that many a tourist spends their time in these initial stages of the falls.

Upon arriving in the main area, our guides had the group agree on a time to return and eat a communal lunch. We decided on 12:30, a little under an hour. Not particularly interested in swimming, Dean and I decided to explore a trail that led further upriver. The trail was a narrow track, meandering up the hillside in the jungle and then back down to the river for several smaller pools and two sets of falls. I looked at my watch at 12:15, thinking we should turn back. But we could hear another set of falls just ahead of us so we continued onward.

Walking up a quick section of steep trail, we came out on a flat area with a handful of picnic tables covered by large trees that overlooked the largest set of waterfalls yet. Dean and I both stood, marveling at the beauty. Unfortunately, it was now 12:30 and not wanting to make our kayaking companions wait for us, we quickly took pictures and headed back.

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Tad Sae Waterfall #3

I had noticed on the map at the entry of the park that the trail was a loop and therefore took the track on the opposite side of the huge pool. The trail led nearly straight up, taking a much more direct route back to the first set of pools. This time, we didn’t dally at each set of the magestic watering holes, instead glancing as we hoofed past. We made the hike back to our lunch spot in just under 15 minutes.

After lunch, we had 20 minutes before needing to leave so Dean and I sat on a walkway, overlooking a large pool that glittered in the sun. We talked about the beauty of this place and how we wished we had more time to spend. We both agreed that it was simply a reason for us to return.

We spent the next 3 hours kayaking down the river, getting a close up view of the jungle leading up to sheer mountain cliffs. At the end of the trip, we fist bumped and agreed it was a great day.

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Paddling Down the Nam Khan

Because of our short experience at Tad Sae waterfall, we decided to go to Kuang Si waterfall unguided. Everything that we had read online had mentioned that this waterfall was much more heavily touristed so we decided to wait until later in the day to take the 45 minute tuktruck ride in the hopes that the crowds would have dispersed. We got out a little later than anticipated as we’d spent the morning at a coffee shop, overlooking the river and playing several rounds of epic cribbage. The afternoon sunshine was golden as we sped through the mountain countryside, enjoying views of rice patty valleys surrounded by heavily jungled hills.

Upon arriving at the parking area to Kuang Si, we quickly realized that maybe we hadn’t timed our arrival to miss the crowds as there were people everywhere. What we didn’t realize is that they were leaving the park, walking down a narrow lane that was bracketed by restaurants and vendors selling souvenirs and snacks. We quickly bought tickets, hurrying to get in front of a large pack of Chinese tourists and started working our way up the path that followed the river, leading up to the different sets of falls.

We stopped for a photo at the first bridge we encountered, and instead of continuing on the heavily trafficked path, we decided to cross the river and follow a narrow goat track leading into the jungle and appropriately labeled “Trekking Trail” on an old wooden signpost.

We followed the meandering path, dodging low branches and walking through spider webs. Clearly this path wasn’t heavily used. Which was shocking to me as we continued to find little inlets to the pools below each set of falls, completely devoid of another human being. For the next 20 minutes we hiked along, taking pictures and marveling at the beauty of this place. We encountered only one other person on the path, a middle aged German gentleman who like us, was remarking upon our luck at getting to experience this place alone.

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Kuang Si Waterfall

Eventually we came upon another bridge that was built over the river just below a particularly large set of falls. The bridge was crowded with huge groups of people who had obviously come up the trail on the other side of the river. We joined the throngs of people taking pictures and decided to continue on the far side of the river, however the trail here was a little more heavily trodden and we encountered a handful of couples coming down from the top.

After climbing a flight of stairs, we finally had reached the top of the hill and the entire river opened out in front of us. The edge of the falls themselves have been fenced off but several narrow bamboo bridges cross the river and allow for an uninterrupted view of the valley surrounded by mountains and the falls below. Several wooden dams have created artificial pools for swimming and a large group of Japanese teenagers were hooting and hollering as they jumped on a rope swing, trying desperately not to touch the water.

Actively trying to escape the noisy crowd, Dean and I decided to walk back through the forest, along the main channel and quickly found ourselves alone again. And here is where we found our solitary pool, fed by three streams. And where we sat, talking about the beauty of this place and our gratitude for the decisions that led us to this place.

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Paradise Above Kuang Si Waterfalls

The late afternoon sunshine reminded us that we were hoping to see the sun set on the Mekong in town later, so we decided to forgo a swim in the pool and explore a little. We happened upon a signpost pointing to a cave, and decided to follow the trail through a forested hillside. The slanting sun shone through the trees, which were highly reminiscent of light filtered by Aspen, and again, I felt so content. We held hands and walked, enjoying the magic of our surroundings.

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Hiking Through the Forest Above Kuang Si Waterfalls

When a sign on the trail marked that the cave was another 2.5kms along the trail, we decided to turn back. Remember, we were really committed to seeing the sunset on the Mekong and with time running short, we decided it was time to head back.

We decided to go down on the other side of the trail, and enjoyed the change of scenery. In one area, the trail leads to a set of wooden stairs that are built on the rocks of the falls themselves, allowing the water to run over the wood. Again, we encountered only a handful of groups heading up the trail however we found the hordes at the wooden bridge overlooking the second waterfall. This side of the river was heavily trod and there were people everywhere – taking pictures on the bridges, spreading across the trail in groups, and swimming the pools. We quickly dodged through the crowds, excusing ourselves when we encountered groups walking 5 abreast, completely oblivious those around them.

On our tuktruck ride back to town, over two large Chang beers which I had purchased as we walked out (because I’m a genius), we talked about our experience. I still marvel that we keep finding these hidden places by simply being curious and willing to try the road less traveled. Which sounds cliche, I know, but keeps proving to be true.

There were so many people at the lower sets of falls but so few at the top and again, no one when we chanced to follow a small track into the woods. Now it’s possible that the hordes that thronged the lower falls had already visited the top and were slowly working their way down but given their enthusiasm at the second falls, I don’t think so. I think that many chose not hike the trail to the top and therefore only saw a small portion of the beauty of this place. A huge score for Dean and I, but limiting to the masses.

A few days later, Dean wanted to spend some time drawing around town so I posted up at a restaurant and back-packers haven called Utopia. The space houses a covered bar area and garden that leads to a large wooden deck, scattered with low tables and reclining lounge cushions. The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner with an assortment of non-alcoholic and boozy drinks. Patrons are invited to grab a chaise and hang out for however long they like, flagging a waiter if they want anything.

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Old Town Luang Prabang

I ordered a cup of ginger tea and sat at a low table, overlooking the river and mountains beyond for several uninterrupted hours of writing. I’ve been practicing my writing in several different places. First, keeping a journal where I capture the details of our travels as well as any insights or feelings. I’ve also been writing TripAdvior reviews for the different restaurants, tour companies and attractions that we visit. And finally, the blog.

In the journal, I captured my thoughts about our journey so far. We’ve seen a countless number of amazing things, met so many kind people, and really gotten to spend some great time with each other, improving our relationship. However long-term travel can be exhausting and there are periods of downtime littered within all of these experiences.

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The View from Utopia

In the days leading up to Christmas, I’d been having several bouts of homesickness. Severe homesickness. We had planned to be in Luang Prabang on the 25th, however we didn’t want to gamble on low speed internet making FaceTime calls home impossible. So instead, we decided to cut our time in this beautiful paradise short, and head back to Bangkok on the 24th, ensuring smoking fast wifi and the ability to text and call our families. While I knew I was going to get the chance to at least talk to the family over the holidays, it wasn’t the same as actually being there.

It’s an interesting conundrum. Here I am, in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and all I want to do is go home. I reminded myself of why I wanted to take this trip in the first place; to get out of my comfort zone and have a bunch of unique experiences to learn and grow as a person. The problem is that change takes time and unfortunately, you can’t see it from day to day. I know that I’m already a much different person than who I was two months ago. One example is that I’m much more patient (I know that will shock some of you!), particularly when waiting in the countless number of lines required when traveling. Therefore, I can only wonder at what additional changes will occur over the next 5 months.

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Paradise in Laos

This is why it’s so important for me to recognize these feelings. Being away from home during the holidays is difficult; it’s ok to miss your family. But more importantly, I need to remember that we’re on a once in a lifetime journey. Oh, we’ll definitely plan to prioritize traveling throughout the remainder of our lives. But if there’s one thing that my father’s passing taught me, it’s that you don’t know how much time you have. So many people plan for a utopian “someday” – this nebulous date in the future when the stars will align and they’ll be financially able to retire and live life on their own terms. We constantly rationalize all the reasons why we can’t do it now, always betting that we will be granted the opportunity to reach that “someday.”

But sitting here, I can’t help but think how fortunate we are that we made this decision. And I also can’t help but chuckle at the serendipitous coincidence that led to writing about this utopian someday, at Utopia today.

Rowing Through The Muck

I’m sitting on the second-story balcony of a craft brewery in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, drinking a Thai Iced Tea IPA and listening to Stevie Nicks blaring from the speakers. It’s grey and chilly, raining intermittently. The forecast is calling for cloudy weather for five of the six days that we’ll be in Vietnam, a delightful change from the brutal heat of Cambodia.

We arrived late at night at our bargain AirBnB on a narrow and back alley. I purposefully booked this homestay as the hosts help arrange travel plans and we had yet to book our trip to see the karsts in Halong Bay or the less touristy Cat Ba Island – a short journey outside of Hanoi. To our disappointment, waking up the next morning after a night of constant rain, we realized that the bad weather was intending to stick around and upon further research, we learned that there is a good chance of the boat tours cancelling in inclement weather. We debated simply booking the trip and taking our chances. But, having read a number of online horror stories from stranded travelers forced by circumstance into staying at bad hotels upon cancellation we were a bit concerned with the uncertainty of traveling 4 hours to potentially be left in the rain. Doing some quick math we realized that we had exceeded our budget in Cambodia and probably should make up some money before our diving liveaboard over New Years in Thailand. Finally, I read that touring the bay in cloudy weather can be mystical (get it?), but that the cold often forces travelers to remain on the boat, forgoing the kayaking and other water activities that are the main attractions for a junkboat tour.

So after a breakfast of homemade vegetable pho, we made an executive decision to spend our time in Vietnam enjoying the city of Hanoi, saving the trip to the bay and the surrounding countryside for another visit.

I had booked a hotel online the night previous and we moved the two blocks from our AirBnB to the Meracus hotel around mid-morning. I had splurged for the hotel, using a $50USD credit from our Hotels.com rewards, bringing the total cost to $20USD. The reason for the splurge? Because long-term travel requires constant periods of downtime. Unlike vacation, where you have a limited amount of time to see and do everything in a particular location, there’s no possible way that we could spend every second out sightseeing and purposefully finding time to relax is very necessary. Instead of rushing from site to site, we try to travel slow. Really getting the feel of a place by wandering into areas that don’t boast tourist sites and trying to be more spontaneous with where we eat. We’ve both had some bouts of illness due to food so we’re trying to be careful without missing the joys of the local cuisine. And while we’ve had a great time at home stays, occasionally it’s nice to have a hotel room that is technically all yours.

We had an unforgettable experience in Siem Reap, spending three action packed days being awed by the temples of Angkor Wat. However the impacts of being away from home for two months and the upcoming holiday season were starting to surface some major emotions and I needed a place of refuge.

This time of the year has been hard for me since my father passed away on December 14th, 1999, just before the Christmas holidays of my senior year in high school. Outside of the annual reminder of my father’s death, I’m one of those people who hates gift-giving – and going into Target any time after November 15th is my own personal definition of hell. Don’t get me wrong, I love that the holiday season allows for spending time with loved ones, primarily doing two of my favorite things – eating and drinking. But the forced consumerization and need to spend money on useless crap that will be discarded by the next year really rankles me. My mom and sister often lament that I’m the worst person to buy gifts for, as I would rather spend quality time together than have “things.”

That being said, I still enjoy this time of year as it provides countless reasons to get together with friends and family, revisiting annual traditions that deepen the important relationships in my life. Some of my favorite are Katie’s cookie baking party, Christmas Eve dinner of kraut bierok with the family, the Softchoice prime rib pot luck, and the Stradiot holiday appetizer party (arguably my favorite day of the year).

Christmas Tree made of traditional Vietnamese hats

From Thanksgiving through New Years, I’m extremely busy with both personal commitments and work, it being year end for most major corporations.

For most of my adult life, being busy has been my primary coping mechanism for dealing with the unresolved feelings from my father’s death. Whenever I feel sad or start to become too emotional, I’ve always been able to distract myself with work commitments or spending time with friends.

My second coping mechanism is to watch YouTube videos of soldiers returning home to their families after deployment. The joy you see upon their reunion and the knowledge that I’ll never have that with my own father creates a sense of gravity that allows for the tears to flow unchecked for several hours. Normally, I let Bodhi up on the bed and his consolation efforts make me cry harder, helping to quickly expend excess emotional energy.

This year however feels different. It’s not just that we’re unable to participate in the usual rituals, but being in this alien setting, away from everything that is comfortable, forces you to be introspective. Additionally, I’ve run out of excuses for avoiding the emotions, instead, forcing myself to spend time feeling and trying to understand them. The problem is, I’ve never really known how to sift through the different feelings and resolve them.

I feel like these are things that should be taught in school, right along with several other neglected life skills; how to do your taxes, drive a manual transmission, the importance of compounding interest, and sewing a button. But there is no handbook and often, you have to learn these lessons for yourself.

So we’ve been spending our days in Hanoi enjoying the vibrant city. Navigating traffic on narrow streets, to find small coffee shops, steaming bowls of pho and bun bo nam bo (a delicious beef noodle soup/salad), and day drinking (or as Dean calls it, living the dream). This city has so many great hidden wonders.

On our way to see Tran Quoc, a large Buddhist pagoda on the West lake, we stumbled into the Dong Xuan, a three story open mall packed with stalls selling any kind of good that you can imagine. On the main floor, we saw mostly purses, hair accessories, shoes, stuffed animals, and souvenirs for tourists. The second level was primarily fabric stalls, selling bolts of silk, satin, suit and shirt fabric. By the time we’d finished meandering the second floor, we were overwhelmed by the crowds and didn’t explore the third floor which mostly offered clothes. Apparently, if it’s available in Vietnam, you can find it here!

On weekends, traffic is closed on the main thoroughfare around the lake and both tourists and locals throng the streets to walk and shop. Big groups of teenagers sat in the streets socializing and families rented motorized Tonka trucks to drive their small children along the wide road. We held hands while strolling, the first time we’ve been able to do so for longer than a few steps.

The food scene is widely diverse, we’ve had fantastic Vietnamese, Italian, sushi, craft beer, and believe it or not, Nashville hot chicken. We leave our hotel each morning with a general direction in mind to see a different tourists site, meandering through neighborhoods and getting a view into daily life. We’ve dipped into several sidewalk cafes, ducked through two Christmas markets, dove into a number of local brews, dodged the motorbikes parked on every available sidewalk, and gawked at the display cases of roasted ducks along every block.

A delicious bowl of Bun Bo Nam Bo

Each day we find a new coffee shop, where I’ve been spending hours writing. Reliving that year that my father was sick and capturing my feelings of both then and now. At some point, I intend to reread my journaling and craft it into something that is worth sharing.

Coconut coffee at The Note

On the 18th anniversary of dad’s death, I cried several times throughout the day. The pain is still very present but less raw than in previous years and it’s helped immensely that I have someone to support me through the tears. Dean spent the morning on a coffee shop balcony while I typed, we ate lunch and then returned to our hotel room, where the hotel staff, upon learning that we are on our “honeymoon,” decorated our room with candles, rose petals, balloons, and a cake saying “Happy Honeymoon.” That night, Dean held me while we drank a bottle of wine, watching Love Actually and anihiliating that cake (what did you think?).

As the weather brightened over the next several days, my mood also improved. And instead of writing about all the sad things I remember from my father’s illness, I’ve begun writing about the good times. I’ve also started to really think about how this time away is changing me.

I’m still having bouts of homesickness and am sad that we won’t be taking part in beloved rituals with our families over the holidays. But I’m also happy for the opportunity to be so far out of my comfort zone, exploring new emotions and developing different perspectives around how I deal with grief, loss, and life.

I have no idea what I’m doing but that’s ok. The most important part of this period is the process. The ability to change and grow has always been a struggle. I like stability and routine. But at this moment, it feels right to be afloat. And I’m pretty lucky to have someone so supportive to share my boat.

Temples and Trials

It’s 3:55am when the alarm goes off. I was in a deep sleep, dreaming about…. I don’t know what. All I know is that I’m unhappy about being woken so abruptly and at such an unreasonable time.

When Dean and I first discussed our itinerary for this trip, we each picked three “bucket list” items that we each wanted to see. Mine are Angkor Wat, scuba diving the antiquities in Greece, and Machu Picchu. We had arrived in Siem Reap the evening prior and wanting to capitalize on one of my bucket list items, hired a tuktuk driver to pick us up at 4:30am to see Angkor Wat at sunrise.

It was now 4:15am and as expected, Mr. Pan, our tuktuk driver was outside waiting. We finished a quick breakfast of yogurt, sugary mueseli, and Nescafé, and hopped in the tuktuk for a surprisingly chilly commute through the jungle. The tuktuks in Cambodia are unlike the tricycle carts in India and Thailand. Instead, Mr. Pan drives a motorcycle, towing a metal trailer with a bench seat facing forward and a fold down seat facing backwards, reminiscent of a traditional horse and buggy.

We rode through the pre-dawn darkness to a check point where the Apsara Authority (the organization that governs the entrance to the park), punched our three day temple ticket and waved us onward. Another 10 minutes further into the jungle we arrived at the entrance of Angkor Wat. Any directions were unneeded as we followed the bobbing flashlights of likeminded tourists, headed toward the entrance point at the beginning of the causeway. If it had been light out, we would have seen that we were on the edge of a temporary, floating bridge, spanning the huge moat leading to the West gate of the largest singular temple in the area. Crossing the spongy walkway it was still almost an hour from sunrise, and even with the glowing half moon we could only see about five feet in front of us.

We followed the main entrance walkway of large uneven stones and tried to keep our footing. We noticed several of the flashlights grouping at the edge of the two reflecting pools at the front of the temple and decided to skirt to the mob’s right hoping to avoid the throngs that promised to continue arriving. Sure enough, there was only one other couple, setting up their camera nearby.

Prior to leaving, I thought Dean was crazy when he packed two large bags of camera equipment. However that morning, I learned that he hadn’t packed his 7lb tripod and therefore the iconic reflection shot of Angkor Wat with the sun rising behind the three towers was not possible. I told Dean that if I wanted a copy of that iconic shot, I could easily download it off the internet. A blessing in disguise as this meant that we could abandoned the busy reflection pools and walk closer to the temple, setting up the small tripod on a stone balistrade.

We could barely see the three front towers of the temple through the darkness and as the sky lightened to gray, a group of three Cambodians came over and sat under the balistrade, 3 feet away from us. They were each looking at Facebook on their phones, talking loudly, with a walkie-talkie blaring, echoing the voice of an authoritative gentlemen and shattering the prestine quiet of the early morning. After a few minutes, Dean packed up his camera and we decided to find another location from which to witness the sunrise, but were quickly told that the remainder of the temple wasn’t open and this is as far as we could go until after sunrise. We requested that they turn down the radio, but I don’t think they understood our English, so Dean motioned to the blaring radio and eventually, they turned down the volume.

For the next 30 minutes, we watched the sky slowly lighten and the temple emerge from the gloom, highlighted by the pinks and oranges of sunrise. The majesty of the moment interrupted by several more groups of tourists being told that they couldn’t proceed any further. But the beauty of the scene unfolding in front of us couldn’t be ruined. It was breathtaking.

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Angkor Wat Coming into Focus

When I chanced to look back to the reflecting pools behind us, a crowd of several hundred people were arrayed on the shores, several hundred more corralled on the temple walk. That’s one thing that we’re learning – we’re not the only people who want to see these beautiful, iconic sites around the world. And even attending during early, late, or off times, means that you’re still sharing with throngs of other tourists.

We were some of the first people to enter the temple and proceeded through the main gallery, past the restored libraries, to the back of the complex. Upon reaching the Northeast corner, I joined a line for the Bakan, the elevated inner gallery, which would allow us to be two of the first 100 tourists to take the steep stairs to the top level, providing 360 views of the Angkor city and the main shrine. The Bakan doesn’t open until 6:40am, which was in 30 minutes. I told Dean that I was happy to wait in line if he wanted to walk around some more and capitalize on the morning light. I spent the next 15 minutes enjoying the people watching, but started to panic when the line began to move at 6:30am, a full 10 minutes before posted. Dean hadn’t returned and I was extremely annoyed that 1) I might have to go up without him or 2) lose my place in line. With two minutes to spare, Dean appeared around the corner and joined me in the line. In true Krista fashion, I snapped at him. Making some comment about how I was worried that he wasn’t going to return in time and how I didn’t think he appreciated my sacrifice.

Here’s the thing about me – my anger burns hot and fast. I build up tension, make a barbed comment and once released, it’s done. I’ve moved on. Dean on the other hand, is a slow simmer. It takes a lot to anger him but often, my snarky comments light the flame, adding to the heat until he reaches a boiling point.

I lit the flame early that morning, causing there to be tension throughout the day as we fell into our patterns – me making comments and Dean fuming. Finally that evening, it came to a head.

We had returned to the hotel around 1:30pm, hot and exhausted after a day of doing “the small loop,” a tour of 5 different temples, closely located. At the fourth, Ta Prohm Temple, we had a miscommunication with Mr. Pan, which left us looking for him for over 40 minutes in the blazing heat. We decided to skip the fifth temple and head straight back to the hotel. We grabbed lunch at a highly rated Italian restaurant called Momma Shop. The lunch was delicious and we returned to the hotel with a full pizza as leftovers. After a quick trip to the corner grocery store to stock up on snacks for the next day’s trip, I joined Dean in the pool. With the help of the cold pool, a fantastic lunch, and several minibar beers, the tension had eased and we talked about our amazing day.

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Jungle Overtaking Ta Prohm Temple

I knew Dean was especially tired when he suggested a late afternoon nap. I nap every chance I get, however Dean rarely partakes, instead using the quiet time to read or relax. We both quickly fell asleep but I woke up after an hour and not being able to fall back asleep, decided to do some research for our next leg of the trip to Vietnam and Laos.

When Dean finally woke up several hours later, I was in the midst of booking tickets to Laos and back to Bangkok for Christmas. Throughout our travel planning, Dean typically has taken the lead on booking transportation (flights, trains, buses, etc) and I have booked accomodations (hotels, AirBnBs, etc). I was annoyed that I had to do the research and booking for what I perceive as “his responsibility.”

Having finally booked the tickets after several frustrating attempts on Air Asia’s website, I looked over at Dean, who was playing a mindless video game on his phone. I snapped and immediately made a snarky comment, asking how his “research” was going. I know it wasn’t rational. But in that moment, all of the tension from the day culminated in my statement and Dean, having finally reached the boiling point, angerly asked what was my problem. I immediately regretted my statement and apologized but the damage had been done and Dean needed some time to cool off.

We spent the next several hours, purposefully not talking to each other. Instead, I ate a dinner of leftover pizza, banana chips and Ritz crackers while Dean said he wasn’t hungry.

While brushing our teeth, I decided to bring up the subject as I desperately didn’t want to go to bed still angry. Considering that emotions were high, we had a civil conversation where we talked about our frustrations throughout the day. I was angry that Dean didn’t appear to appreciate me, and therefore I made snarky comments, pushing him further away. He talked about how my comments made it so that he didn’t particularly want to be around me. And when he stated as much, it made me want to push him away even harder.

You see, we’ve never really had to work at our relationship. We’ve always had a very easy way with each other, often talking through feelings and big decisions. So on the rare occasions that we do fight, neither of us really knows what to do. But we promised that we would work on our communication and tomorrow, we would have a “do over.”

We went to bed early and when we awoke at 3:55am the next morning, the power was out but our attitudes were a little better. As we got ready in the light of our phone flashlights, I could already tell that we were both trying.

This time, we decided to skip the crowded throngs at Angkor Wat, and instead go to Phnom Bakheng, the previous capital of the Khmer empire located on the only hill for miles. As we climbed the groomed path at 5:10am, we needed our headlamps to navigate the uphill, jungle trail. After some stumbling in the dark, we finally found the entrance, and climbed the steep stairs leading to the main level of the temple. Upon reaching the top, we realized that we were the only people there. We sat on the East facing stairs and were slowly joined by several more groups as the sun started to color the sky. No throngs of tourists crowding together for the perfect shot, no Facebook, no walkie-talkies. Just silence and a shared appreciation amongst strangers for the beauty of the scene before us.

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Angkor Wat in the Morning Mist

 

After the sun had fully risen, we decided to hike back down to Mr. Pan and our tuktuk, admiring the beauty of the jungle path and the western views that had previously been hidden by the night. Also waiting for us in the tuktuk was our leftover pizza which we promptly ate for breakfast, fist-bumping to celebrate our genius.

Our next temple, Bantey Shrey, was 35 kilometers away, and we were rewarded with a 40 minute drive through the countryside bathed in the early morning light. The main industry in Cambodia is farming; rice being the major crop produced in this swampy area. The fields were yellowish green and flat, providing a view of the large hill in the distance where the Khmer quarried both the lava and sandstone that was used in the 100+ temples in the region.

We fist-bumped again as we ordered two americanos from the snack bar outside of the temple, as we weren’t able to make Nescafé in our room due to the power outage. Remember, today was our “do over,” and after two early mornings, we desperately needed some caffeine to keep our energy up and attitudes in check.

We then proceeded to do “the big loop,” with the temples spaced further apart and on the outskirts of the large complex. Similar to the previous day, we were hot and exhausted by noon, but powered through, finishing by 1:30pm.

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Mr. Pan Leading Us Through the Jungle

A lunch of local fare and Singha beers prepared us for a dip in the pool. After a nap, I spent some time on TripAdvisor, searching for the perfect dinner and surprised Dean by choosing the Siem Reap Brewery. Over a beer sampler and a superb dinner, we talked about the improvement in the day and how each of us is going to have to continue to work to better communication. We went to bed early and while we didn’t have a 4:00am wake up call for sunrise, we did need to be at the Grasshopper Adventure office at 7:30am for our full day, mountain biking temple tour.

Neither Dean or I are big “tour” people. In fact, we’d spent the last two days dodging massive groups of tourists blocking doorways and posing endlessly for the same pictures. But bike riding through the jungle on the secluded trails linking the temples was definitely something that I wanted to experience.

We spent an extremely enjoyable day, riding through the massive Angkor complex and revisiting several of our favorite temples: Angkor Wat, Ta Prohm, and Bayon. Our guide, Sambo, was very knowledgeable and told great stories about the history of the temples and the rise and fall of the Khmer empire. He pointed out countless interesting carvings and answered a number of questions that we had while touring the previous two days without a guide. Having been born just outside of Siem Reap, he had a very great sense of pride in the lasting monuments of his Khmer ancestors. As we rode back to town, we passed the outside of Angkor Wat and the iconic West facade. We paused for a picture in the late afternoon sun and it was a perfect moment to say good-bye to this magical place.

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South Gate of Angkor Thom

Heading to dinner that night, we were saddle-sore and famished, but extremely pleased with the experience. It was definitely one of my trip highlights and something that I’ll never forget. Not just due to the mystery and beauty of a place that I’ve dreamed of seeing but also because this is where Dean and I made some real strides in improving our communication.

And while I know it’s going to be difficult for me to tone down the snark, I am more aware of how it impacts Dean. And doing the work to improve our relationship will ensure we build something beautiful that will last a lifetime. Rather like those temples.

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Faces of Bayon Temple

There Are No Sidelines In India

The first rule of India for any foreign traveler – breathe through your mouth. India assaults your senses. The bouquet of aromas that you experience within any 20 foot walk can be varied and often, unpleasant. The sheer volume of people, living in close quarters in centuries old cities can create some unique problems.

For starters, there is often issues with implementing indoor plumbing and sewage systems. Public waste management is not widely accessible and culturally, most people think nothing of throwing trash on the ground, sometimes gathering it into small piles to burn. There is always a haze on the horizon due to exhaust, dirt roads, and the burning of garbage and crop waste. Cows, pigs, goats, and dogs freely roam the streets, their excrement smeared across the pavement. As you walk along the street, you can be hit by a cloud of exhaust from a tuktuk, smell the rich aroma of spices, dodge a pile of fresh cow shit, and catch a whiff of a cooking kachori all in the span of 5 steps.

There’s something to see everywhere you turn. The streets are lined with shops selling everything from spices to household goods to vegetables straight from the outlying farms in the countryside. There’s an endless sea of bright colored and boldly patterned saris, the women resembling peacocks sporting their intricate jewelry. The roads are narrow, winding through buildings in varied states of repair, some with interesting murals or architectural features that draw the eye and make you wonder about the beauty of the city in the distant past.

The cuisine is delicious, leveraging the fresh ingredients from the local farms. Every dish is served in a rich sauce or gravy, the base of which is typically cooking oil, making most meals extremely heavy. Any fresh vegetable or salad isn’t an option as foreigners can get very sick from unhygienic wash water. Both Dean and I have gained weight, in spite of hours spent walking each day.

It’s impossible to escape the constant sound of horns honked by every car, truck, motorcycle and tuktuk on the road. Vehicles use their horns for communication as traffic rules are lax, with people merging with abandon without care for oncoming traffic. Roads are choked by individuals pushing handcarts and it appears that any vehicle can pull over and park where it suits, heedless of the congestion building behind it – I often joke that India’s theme song should be “Move Bitch, Get Out The Way.” Additionally, music blares in every restaraunt, making conversation nearly impossible over TVs turned to full volume. The person who thought up the “Some goddamn peace and quiet” card in Cards Against Humanity surely must have recently returned from India.

Tuk Tuks In The Way

While people aren’t necessarily rude, there is an “I do what I want” attitude to the way in which people move through daily life with no apparent regard for the impacts to those around them. It’s a very “me first” society, with people cutting in lines and scrambling to get ahead. Growing up in a society with strict rules that govern polite interaction, and considering our experience in Mumbai, I can see how people think that Indians have a “fuck you” attitude toward foreigners. But while traveling Rajisthan over the last two weeks, we had the opposite experience.

We flew into Udaipur in the evening and immediately hired a taxi to our hotel in the old city. Cars aren’t allowed in the ancient and narrow streets of Udaipur’s Old City, so Dean and I walked a half mile towards the Maharaja’s old palace (now a museum) and through ancient complexes (called havelis) previously housing entire families of the upper castes.

The next day we were scheduled to meet the folks at Jatan, the NGO that Softchoice Cares had partnered with the year prior to build a computer lab in rural Rajasthan. Our contact, Raajdeep, had arraigned a car for the day and we drove to meet the Jatan team at their Udaipur offices before driving the two hours to Railmagra the building site. I was extremely excited to hear about the progress being made on the building and how it’s enabled Jatan to institute more and more programs that are impacting the rural communities nearby. The Jatan group was extremely excited to hear that Dean is an architect and asked him to look at the plans for their new building, breaking ground in 2018.

Jatan Railmagra Building October 2016

After a welcome ceremony at the Jatan Railmagra offices – that included friendship bracelets, marigold necklaces, red tika and tea – we ate a thali lunch with the entire office. We then drove the 20 minutes to the building that one year prior, was the shell of a single story building with a concrete staircase on the outside. Softchoice Cares had funded the construction of the first story in 2015 and the 2017 Board decided to return to build the second story. The group of 16 Board members and 5 additional family/friends spent two weeks building; mixing cement by hand, making a human chain to toss bricks from a pile on the ground to the stair landing and then onto a pile on the second floor for use in building the external walls, layer by layer. The building had no running water as the bathrooms were a dirt floored room being used to store materials and power was provided by a diesel generator.

We set up 30 Lenovo laptops, a 50 inch flat screen and Nintendo Wii in a windowless concrete room and were promised that internet would be available within the next month. I’ll admit, when we left the project, most people in the group were dejected. We wondered if the investment was wasted as there was still so much to do.

This year, upon arriving at the site, I was shocked. The crudely built brick square was a tiered, three story building, gleaming white in the afternoon sun. I giggled with glee walking up the dirt path as Raajdeep explained that they intended to build a concrete drive, lined with mango trees, leading under the large porte cochere on the side of the building.

Jatan Railmagra Building November 2017

Walking through the double front doors, we were in a large room with stairs to the second story on either side (now enclosed), the screens at each landing filtering the sun. The dirt floored alcove where our meals were cooked a year prior was now an office for the building manager while the storage room at the back became the bathroom with 4 shower stalls, 8 toilets and a large trough sink. The computer lab was the same concrete room, but now with cloth covers to keep the machines prestine. The TV had been moved to the largest room and is being used for presentations, etc. for trainings.

Railmagra Children at the Jatan Building

The now completed second story houses two rooms for break out groups or smaller gatherings and can be used as dormitories for multi-day training sessions and retreats. The bathroom layout mimics the first floor design and there are two individual rooms with ensuite toilet/shower for trainers or chaperones.

The third level is an open rooftop with temporary kitchen for making meals and tea. There’s plenty of space for activities: yoga, exercise, breakout groups, the possibilities are endless. Up a metal ladder and you have access to a smaller rooftop, providing a 360 view of the surrounding countryside. While Raajdeep told us about the buildings’ many uses, he also outlined future plans for a permanent kitchen, full time guard housing, and garden to support their nutrition education program.

I returned to Udaipur that evening, exhausted but happy. While there’s still a lot of work to be done, the amount of progress made in a year is astounding and I’m extremely excited to report back to Softchoice Cares with pictures, 360 photo spheres, and a full report of the impacts being made.

We spent the next two days in Udaipur, leisurely enjoying the sites: eating on rooftop restaurants overlooking the lake, admiring the lavish and well preserved palace, and taking a boat ride to Jagmandir Island for sunset. I had reserved a room at Jaiwana Haveli for our last night as I had spent a weekend there the year prior and had facetimed Dean from the rooftop patio. This was a special place that I wanted to share and I specially requested one of the two rooms in the tower to ensure we could enjoy the view from the same patio. Upon checking in, the owner learned that Dean is an architect, and again, he was asked to look at building plans and render his opinion. We spent almost an hour looking at the plans and afterwards, the owner shared his lunch with us and offered to provide a discounted bottle of wine after learning that we intended to walk the 15 minutes to a beer store. As we followed the bellman to our room, I was dismayed when instead of taking us to the tower, he took us to a second story. He opened the door to a large room with a bay window, overlooking the lake, and a private patio with a sitting alcove carved into the stone. It must have been one of the best rooms in the entire complex. Score!

Lake Pichola from Udaipur

This was only the first example of the hospitality we experienced throughout the next week. We had received a referral for a homestay in Jaipur from Dean’s best man, Brian, who had traveled to India with his wife in 2016. Pushpendra happily provided dates available for one of the five rooms in their beautiful home and asked about our plans. Upon learning that we had yet to reserve accommodations in Jodhpur, he recommended a homestay with relatives and also suggested we look into a camel safari in nearby village Osian.

We arrived at our homestay in Jodhpur and were immediately greeted by Madan, a stately older gentleman, who ushered us into his large sitting room and offered tea. Upon chatting with Madan and his son, we learned that his family is related to the Maharaja of Jodhpur – whose forefathers established the city – and still lives in the city’s 20th century palace.

As we settled into our room – which included a large bathroom and access to a terrace – we were invited to join the family for dinner later that night. After returning from an afternoon visit to the palace museum and crowded Sunday market, we went downstairs for cocktails and a few hours of conversation with our hosts and another couple staying in the home, a Brazilian diplomat and his wife currently stationed in Sri Lanka. Madan and his entire family are fantastic hosts, offering insights into their lives and the Indian culture, as well as taking an active interest in their guests. Upon learning that we were scheduled to travel to a safari camp in Osian, they helped arrange transportation and invited us to visit their property, a luxury safari camp (the original camp in Osian) located immediately next door. The night’s dinner was among the best we’ve had yet. It was an extremely enjoyable evening and when offered the option to join them the next night, we immediately accepted.

The next day, we explored Jodhpur’s Mehrangarh Fort – a massive stone building dominating a nearby hill and the original seat of the Maharaja. We took Madan’s recommendation and opted for the audio tour of the museum instead of getting a local guide. The building itself was extremely well preserved and the audio tour had some fascinating information, explaining the history of the architecture as well as displaying some well preserved paintings, murals and artifacts from when India was a number of individual states, each ruled by it’s own Maharaja.

Even here, the Indian tourists were pushy. Crowding in front of different displays, yelling to family members, with no regard for personal space or quiet. At times, Dean and I chose to hold back, trying to avoid particularly annoying groups.

After leaving the museum, we wandered along the battlements, hoping to meander a bit and get away from the crowds. We found ourselves in a beautiful garden with only a handful of people, the fort towering above us just up the hill. I found a set of stairs, leading to the back wall, and seeing no signs or barrier, we decided to head up to look around.

The back of the walled compound overlooks an old area of town, called “The Blue City,” aptly named as the priestly caste called Brahmins who live there have painted their houses a light indigo color for centuries. We decided to see if there was an exit from the fort toward the Blue City versus leaving with the throngs of tourists arriving from the Old Town.

Jodhpur’s Blue City

Walking down the road, we were stopped by an intimidating looking guard, who said, “No access.” But when we asked if this was the direction to the Blue City, he smiled and pointed the direction we had been heading. The same thing happened with the next guard we passed, an emphatic “No,” then a smile pointing us onward.

We exited through a pair of elephant-sized doors set in the thick stone wall. We meandered the back streets of the Blue City, which had been built centuries before right up to the walls of the fort. The area felt no different from any other Indian city as there were chai stands, food stalls, and shops scattered along the road. However, the light blue color of the buildings added a layer of mystery and brilliance to the otherwise commonplace sights.

Back Way Out of Mehrangarh Fort

We left Jodhpur the next day for a quick trip north to Osian, a small village located on the edge of the Thar Desert and therefore the perfect location for several safari camps, catering to adventurous tourists. We whiled away the afternoon, drinking beer and playing several games of cribbage under a shady tent with our toes in the sand.

We took an evening camel ride through sunset – an experience that is sure to be one of the most memorable things I’ve ever done – and returned to camp to find out that we would be the only guests staying at Safari Camp Osian that night – the king and queen of the camp with a 5 person staff taking care of just us. Dean and I both wondered aloud at our luck.

Evening Camel Ride in Osian

The next morning we hopped a 5 hour train ride to Jaipur and were greeted by our hosts, Pushpendra and his wife Sneh. Again, we were amazed by the hospitality as we enjoyed a wonderful evening, Dean sampling single malt whiskeys with Pushpendra, while Sneh and I talked about their two daughters. I was shocked to see that it was past 10 o’clock when our dinner was finished and was sad when they told us that they had to attend a birthday party the following night. However we still had a good chance to spend time with the extremely interesting couple during our 3 days spent in their home. While saying our good-byes the night before leaving, Sneh gave us a set of coasters made from the famous Jaipur blue pottery; a kind gift from our new friends.

Our Wonderful Hosts in Jaipur, Pushpendra and Sneh

As I reflect on our time in India, I’m happy that we’ve had such a wide variety of experiences. I can understand how people are overwhelmed when first coming here. Life is lived on a different level – it’s gritty, in your face and doesn’t follow the rules of courtesy. At the same time, the people that we’ve been lucky enough to meet have been warm, hospitable, and gone out of their way to take care of us. It’s an interesting dichotomy.

I think it comes down to one thing – India demands participation. If you’re willing to penetrate the masses to meet the individuals, instead of being a spectator, you’ll get to experience the richness of this wonderful country.

Elephants Leaving Amber Fort Outside of Jaipur

That Time We Got Scammed In Mumbai

After our extremely disappointing exit from the Khumbu, 10 days earlier than expected, there were several necessaries that needed to be taken care of. The first, was a visit to the hospital to get my lungs and digestive tract checked out. Tsering recommended that we go to Swacon International Hospital, which caters specifically to foreigners and has better facilities than the local hospitals. They immediately took me to the “emergency room,” a large, sea foam colored room with several beds separated by curtains. The doctor asked a number of questions about my symptoms, listened to my lungs with a stethoscope, and ushered in a nurse who efficiently took my vitals. They then escorted me to a different area of the ground floor for a sonogram as sometimes, stomach issues can be caused by parasites. Next, they drew blood and took a chest X-ray. I kept thinking, this seems like an awful lot of tests for some diarrhea and a dry cough but didn’t say anything as I figured the doctor knew what was needed.

After an hour and a half of tests and paperwork, the nurse told us that we would need to wait to reconcile the bill and could have our lunch in their cantina out back. Outside, we could only find a parking lot with a number of cars, motorcycles and a single table with umbrella, so we sat down in some lawn chairs and got out our books to wait. After another hour, Dean decided to go inside to get an update. Apparently the giggly girl behind the desk pulled our file out from the bottom of a stack that she hadn’t been working on and told him it would be another hour.

Here’s the thing about Dean – he’s the most soft spoken and patient guy in the world, until he isn’t. We then decided to go sit next to the front desk, our physical presence a reminder that they needed to get this completed. After another 30 minutes, the girl handed Dean the bill. A whopping $400USD! He insisted on seeing the itemized receipt before payment while the girl insisted that she couldn’t provide it until the bill had been paid. A real Catch-22.

We also wanted to see the results before paying, however they relayed that the tests wouldn’t be completed for 2 days. Knowing a load of bullshit when he sees it, Dean told them it was not acceptable. So they quickly told us another 2 hours while Dean shook his head. Nope – you’ll have them done in an hour. So while Dean argued back and forth with the women behind the desk on several incorrect charges, one of which being an ambulance ride that we didn’t take, I waited for the results.

The nurse finally called me back to the emergency room, handing me a folder with my blood test results but not providing any detail as to what they meant. She did mention that everything looked normal, I think after she realized that I was getting really frustrated.

Here’s the thing about me – I’m neither soft spoken, nor patient. So when the nurse handed me a bottle of cough syrup, some allergy pills, and two pills for “pain” as the remedy for my ailments, I lit her up. I pushed the medicine back in her hands and told her in no uncertain words that this wasn’t allergies and we just wasted our money. It’s a bit of a blur, but I can remember delivering a litany on the substandard care provided and taking advantage of rich foreigners as we exited the building.

On the ride home Dean and I talked about the experience, our only conclusion being that they couldn’t find anything wrong and therefore we’re going to assume a clean bill of health.

We spent the remaining week and a half in Kathmandu, checking out the sites, eating good food, planning the next leg of our trip, and getting healthy. While my stomach symptoms and cough remained for several weeks, I felt a little better everyday.

However the hospital visit in Nepal isn’t the scam I wanted to write about – our experience in Mumbai truly defines the experience of “getting conned”.

We arrived in Mumbai in the evening and experienced a thrilling cab ride to the Colaba neighborhood (located at the south end of the city’s peninsula and a concentrated hub of colonial architecture) through the bustle of the world’s 5th largest city. Having visited Delhi last year (the 3rd largest city), I was prepared for the crushing mass of humanity and roads packed with cars, all merging and honking with very little regard for traffic laws and delineated lanes. However Mumbai traffic appeared to be a little more civilized. We drove out of the airport on a large highway, our cab staying primarily in the left lane. The slums crowded on either side of the highway and we watched as the one and two story, haphazardly built buildings stretched for miles.

The smooth ride abruptly changed after crossing the Banda Worli Sea Link bridge, a new city landmark that circumvents the mainland’s existing bottleneck connection to the upper part of the peninsula. We were now on the inner city roads during rush hour. The streets were flooded with people as we drove along Marine Drive, which parallels the famous Chowpatty Beach, a favorite among locals and sprawling with handcarts selling every type of street food.

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Mumbai’s Marine Drive

Our cab driver seemed to be playing a game at each stop light, accelerating as quickly as possible while dodging and honking at slower moving vehicles, until he encountered the cars impatiently waiting at the next light. It felt like I was in a bad race car movie and quickly developed a headache that lasted the remainder of the evening.

The next morning, we awoke and had breakfast on the rooftop of our hotel. The sun was peaking through the smog and marine layer, causing everything to have a pinkish orange glow. Dean strapped on his backpack and we headed for the ocean, wanting to see the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel and Gateway to India while the light remained golden and magical.

On our way, we saw a man walking a Boxer and I quickly crossed the street to make friends. Trigger is a sweet, 5 year old brindle who immediately snuggled up to my legs and I told his owner about our dog Bodhi, having the time of his life in Wyoming.

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Gateway to India

I was flying high after our encounter, sporting a smile as we walked. I thought this was the reason that a number of Indian people asked to take our picture while at the Gateway (a practice I find very strange but am willing to humor). Dean let me know it is because we are very clearly Western, something of a novelty in Indian culture.

We meandered the streets, enjoying the 18th century colonial architecture and watching the city come to life. Dean made a comment about a gentleman sitting crossed legged on his stool in front of a pan stall waxing his impressive mustache. Dean asked to take a picture and then ordered one of the fruit and spice filled pan leaves. The gentleman proceeded to grab a leaf, and open a number of metal jars, each filled with a different paste, spice or fruit. He spread the mixture with his fingers and once finished, handed the leaf package to Dean. For reasons that I can’t explain, the moment was magical.

I snapped a picture as Dean took a bite, the gentleman smiling behind his large, mustache and reaching his eyes. I had read about the hospitality and kindness of the Indian people and in this moment, I felt so connected.

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Mustachioed Man with Street Pan

We walked along the sidewalk, checking out the stalls filled with samosas, fried potatoes, and a number of other quickly made foods being eaten by the growing throngs of locals. We stopped to check our map and locate the train station as we still needed to book our travel from Udaipur to Jodhpur to Jaipur and across the country to Kolkata. A local heard us speaking English and hovered nearby. At first, I thought it was so that he could ask for a picture but upon striking up a conversation, he mentioned that he had lived in San Francisco and wanted to give us some friendly advise about the attractions in the city. When asking where we were going next, I answered honestly by telling him that we were headed to the train station to buy our tickets. He immediately stated that we would be charged “tourist prices” and if we’d like, we could meet up for lunch and go to “his friend” who would help us get a better deal. Having read the guidebooks about India, Dean was skeptical. However being an easy sell, I was willing to at least see if we could save some money by booking like a local.

After a trip to the train station to get a cost for our 33 hour overnight train from Jaipur to Kolkata (something that Dean has always wanted to do), we sent Rahim a WhatsApp message with a place to meet for lunch. He took us to a restaurant filled with locals and provided guidance on the different Indian dishes on the menu. When the food arrived, we invited him to join us and we spent an hour talking about his life as a software developer, traveling on contract to different places across the globe. I asked him a number of questions that only a developer would actually know – what language he codes in, what type of applications was he working on, what are some companies that I would recognize that he’d done contracts for. Enough to trip him up in a lie.

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Victoria Terminal Train Station

We then followed him to a street that was filled with small booths, one after another, with men sitting behind a counter with a computer in front. We sat down inside one shop and spoke with Javen, the proprietor. Rahim acted as the translator, providing us with bus times and options. We went back and forth on times and class of bus but finally had tickets and electronic confirmation for an AC sleeper bus from Udaipur to Jodhpur. We prepaid for our tickets from Jodhpur to Jaipur so that we would only need to WhatsApp Javen with the time so he could issue the tickets.

Rahim then took us through Crawford Market, a buy-anything street market where the locals came to haggle over everything from textiles, to spices, to household supplies. In the cab on the way back to Colaba, I invited Rahim for a drink. We went into an open bar and through a door to a dark room, sparsely filled with people. As we walked in, I thought to myself that this is where we would get robbed. But immediately felt bad as Rahim ordered 3 Kingfishers.

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Crawford Market

We sat drinking our beers, talking about the need for the dark, back room as local Indians have to hide their drinking since it’s not culturally accepted. As we were finishing the first glass of our 650ml beers, Rahim was on and off his phone, physically agitated.

He had been on his phone for the majority of the cab ride as well, and he now told us that his brother had been in a motorcycle accident and was in the hospital, needing emergency surgery. I immediately expressed my sympathy and told him that if he needed to go, we’d be happy to pay for the beers. He quickly said that he was waiting for a friend to go to the hospital and call him with the details. We sat drinking our beers and it finally occurred to me what was going on when Rahim started talking about the cost of the surgery.

As you read this, I can only assume that you’ve already come to a conclusion as to the situation. However I can honestly say that throughout the entire day, I thought Rahim was genuine. He had spent over 4 hours with us, showing us around and building trust. Even providing his WhatsApp number, which is easily traceable.

Finally Rahim asked us for money – about $10USD. Dean nudged my knee under the table and gave me a knowing look which I interpreted to be an “I told you so.” I returned the look, which Dean interpreted to be “Give him money.” So as we got up to leave the bar, he handed him 500INR, about $8.50.

Expressing his thanks, Rahim walked a different direction, telling us to message him later. As we circled back to our hotel (suspiciously looking over our shoulder and going around the block to ensure we weren’t being followed), I was pissed. But more importantly, I was desperately disappointed. I truly believe in the good in people and Rahim had broken that, smashing the gift of my trust into a million pieces.

Dean then told me about the guidebooks, warning of similar situations and numerous other cons pulled on unsuspecting tourists. When I asked why he didn’t say anything and went along with it, he told me that he had, but I didn’t want to hear it. And he was right, I hadn’t.

Our next thought was around the validity of the bus tickets that we had just purchased. I immediately called the bus company in Udaipur, but the person on the other line didn’t speak English. I then emailed my contact at Jatan (the non-profit in Rajasthan that I had worked with in 2016), explaining the situation and asking for help. But wanting a more immediate answer, I went down to the front desk of our hotel to ask that they call the bus company. Instead, they dialed Javen and asked if the bus ticket was legit – and of course, he said it was.

When I went back upstairs, Dean was laying in bed feeling ill. Throughout the night, he was struck with a 100 degree fever, chills and stomach issues. I, on the other hand, felt fine. After discussing what we had eaten throughout the day, we concluded that Dean’s single bite of street pan, made by a man who minutes prior was waxing his mustache, must have been the culprit. He suffered through a miserable night and was still feeling poorly the next day, looking like he had the DTs, though his fever had decreased somewhat.

We ate breakfast on the rooftop, Dean barely stomaching a dry piece of toast. At 10am, we made our way back over to Crawford Market to confront Javen and ideally get our money back. I had spent the morning doing research and had found that the bus ticket booked for our trip to Jodhpur was a non-AC sleeper and only cost 815INR for the two of us, where we had paid 4800INR total. Confirming that we’d been had!

Meanwhile, Rahim had been sending me messages via WhatsApp, with the final message asking, “are you mad on me?” Are you kidding me you stupid little shit? You scam us and then have the nerve to continue to message me?! I wanted to send a scathing message with a series of choice words but Dean convinced me to turn off my notifications and ignore him. He’s a high road kind of person.

As we searched for the “travel agent’s” stall from the day prior, I immediately noticed that there was a different man sitting behind the computer. He appeared to be helping a customer, so we patiently waited. After about 5 minutes, we were invited to take a seat on the low plastic stools inside. We waited for another 5 minutes, when Javen came around the corner, the surprise in seeing us sitting in his office clearly reflected on his face. He took the captain’s chair in front of the computer and after several minutes, turned to acknowledge us.

Dean and I had talked about our strategy prior. I would be the calm, collected one and he would chime in with the muscle if needed. I immediately pulled my stool next to Javen and explained the situation. We would be getting a private car from our desert safari in Osian and therefore wouldn’t need to book a bus for the trip to Jaipur. Additionally, the 8:15am bus that he booked was a non-AC sleeper, not the AC sleeper that was originally promised. He made a show of opening an application on his computer however I showed him the timetable on my phone, having found a travel app that consolidated all of the options. It very clearly stated non-AC sleeper. He offered to rebook for an AC sleeper, but Dean interjected firmly that we wanted our money back. Javen then stated there would be a 10% cancellation fee. The tension increased as we both argued. At some point, I think he realized that we weren’t having it and he took out the key to his cash drawer and counted out our 4800INR.

We walked away from his booth feeling elated. We had won!

Dean went back to the hotel to lie down while I found some lunch and wrote in my journal. I wrote for over 2 hours, typing furiously about my feelings. I started out venting my frustration, wondering about the type of person that could commit 5 hours to lying. Wondering if everything Rahim said was by design, spinning a web of lies that would build our trust. I replayed the day in my head, trying to decide if any part of the interaction was genuine. I hated that he made me question the validity of our interactions and I hated that I had so clearly fallen for the lie.

After getting most of my frustrations out, I decided that I could forgive Rahim. But when I visualized the scene in my head, instead of forgiving him, I punched him in the face. Maybe it was too soon.

Instead, I decided that I wouldn’t let this experience change the way in which I view the world. I do believe in the goodness in humanity. Sure, there are some shitty people in the world. You meet them everyday. But if someone smiles at me, I’m going to smile back. If someone speaks to me, I’m going to reply. It costs me nothing to be kind. And hopefully, the next time someone has ill intent, I’ll be better prepared to see it.

The Death of a Dream

Still glowing from reaching our goal, the village of Phortse, Dean chose a path through the village that went past the Khumbu Climbing Center, the building Dean had helped design as a graduate at Montana State University and then later, lived in Nepal for 2.5 years to start construction. The project is funded by the Alex Lowe Charitable Foundation, run by Jenni Lowe-Anker and her husband, Conrad Anker, a world famous mountaineer and climber. While the building has been in construction for the past 8 years, the school has been going for over 15 years, teaching Sherpa and high-altitude workers the technical skills vital to their safety in guiding and working on the mountains.As we walked through the site, I saw that all the external walls had been erected and the current building team was working on the supporting structure for the roof. The plan is to have the entire building complete for the 2019 climbing season (March – June) with a grand opening ceremony in the spring.

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View from the Future Library Space in the Khumbu Climbing Center Builing

Just beyond the climbing school is the Namaste Lodge where the proprietors, Lhakpa and Ngawang, welcomed us with delight. Well, they were mostly delighted to see Dean as he’s considered an extended part of their family. But they were very happy to make my acquaintance and immediately demonstrated their famous hospitality over a cup of ginger tea. After exchanging initial pleasantries and finishing our tea, they showed us to our room and I collapsed into my sleeping bag exhausted but proud.

That night, we shared the dining room with 4 boisterous Germans and after having rested throughout the afternoon, my appetite had returned to enjoy a full plate of dhal bhat – lentils, rice and vegetable curry. Unfortunately, my stomach did not cooperate and I found myself perfecting my squat technique shortly after. We had planned on continuing our trek up to Pheriche the next day but after the 7 hours of torture experienced on the way to Phortse, I asked Dean if we could take an additional day to rest before continuing to trek.

My sinus infection hadn’t improved, meaning that I carried tissues and ColdEase in every pocket. Now my stomach was choosing to rebel, forcing me to visit the back house several times daily and my appetite to disappear. I spent the morning sitting in the sun, chatting with Ngawang about our respective families and asking a number of questions about her life. Both Ngwang and Lhakpa have spent time in the US, so their English is fairly good and we were able to communicate easily.

A new set of trekkers joined us at the lodge around noon and I enjoyed speaking to a woman who shockingly enough, lives about 1 mile from us in Denver. What a small world! Dean had been down at the site, working with the current building team, Bud and Mike, but wanted to show me around the village a little since we intended on leaving the next morning. So in the afternoon, we slowly hiked up one side of the village, the hill being much steeper than anticipated, and worked our way over to the local Buddhist monastery (traditionally called the Gompa) perched on the hill overlooking the entire village. We enjoyed the view down valley, looking across and up to Mong La and the trail that we had painstakingly travelled the day prior. The peace was only broken by the “ooing and ahhing” from the nearby group of Spanish speaking trekkers, reveling at the same beauty.

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Buddhist Prayer Wheels Leading to Phortse Gompa

In packing that night, we discussed my health and weighed the risk of continuing our trek. While the brutal sinus pressure had subsided, I was still constantly blowing my nose and my cough had worsened. I hadn’t kept any nourishment in my body for the past 2 days, my appetite had vanished and so far, my body wasn’t responding to the first day of antibiotics. By any account, things weren’t looking good. As I took an Ambien to ensure a good night’s sleep, I told Dean that we would reassess in the morning and I quickly proceeded to fall into a deep slumber.

Eating my toast and Larabar the next morning, I wasn’t feeling any better. Alarms were going off in my head, red lights flashing “Danger!” But when asked what I wanted to do, that little voice inside my head said that I wasn’t ready to throw in the towel.

Just before the sun had peeked over the looming peak of Thamserku, we slowly made our way up to the top of the village, stopping every few minutes for me to lean on my poles and catch my breath. A Sherpani woman was on the hill above us, herding her three yaks out of the village to graze, so I could clearly see the path we had to take – which according to Dean, would be the most difficult uphill of our day’s 6 – 7 hour hike.

While enjoying the sunshine at a porter’s ledge, where the trail finally had stopped climbing out of the village, Dean again expressed his concern over how long it had taken us to make the climb and my apparent lack of energy. I shrugged it off. We’d finished the hardest climb of the day and I figured if I could just warm up a little, I’d start to feel better.

As we tackled the next section of trail, a 3 foot wide cut in the side of a cliff, I experienced a few moments of light headedness and my right trekking pole slipped over the side of the sheer drop. In that moment, I knew that this was as high as we would climb.

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View of the Hillside Trail Leaving Phortse

The little voice inside me screamed. You see, I’m not a quitter. If there’s one thing I know about myself it’s that I charge into things, head first and open hearted. It’s both a strength and a weakness. God damn it – I wasn’t ready to give up. I could do this! But the thing is, I couldn’t.

I then did one of the hardest things I’ve ever done – I turned around.

Tears filled my eyes as Dean hugged me, again stating that there was no shame in turning back. I didn’t want to hear it. I did feel shame, as well as the overwhelming grief of the death of my dream. We stood there for what felt like ages – probably closer to 10 minutes – perched on the side of a cliff in the sunshine while Dean’s arms encircled me as I cried.

Everyone was very sympathetic once we returned to the lodge and I was immediately whisked back to our room to lay down. Dean tucked me into my sleeping bag, ensuring an appropriate supply of tissues, Strepsils and ColdEase within easy reach, and I proceeded to cry myself to sleep.

I slept through the morning, got up for lunch in the dining room with Dean, and then returned to our room to cry myself to sleep for the remainder of the afternoon. At dinner that night, Dean watched as I half-heartedly ate half a bowl of RaRa veg noodle soup.

My symptoms persisted throughout the night and into the next morning, I could only stomach a cup of tea and a single piece of toast for breakfast. I think this is the time where Dean really got concerned as he started to insist that we head down to Namache the next day to seek medical help. However I still wanted to ride it out and thought another day of bed rest might help.

So reluctantly, Dean left to spend the day rock climbing with the guys from the KCC and allowed me to rest. I laid in bed most of the morning, hovering in that place between wakefulness and sleep, occasionally pausing for a bout of good crying. Not only did I feel miserable but I was also mourning the loss of seeing Everest Base Camp. More importantly, I think I was mourning the loss of the experience and the pride I would have felt in achieving that goal. I had dreamed about this for so long, and now I knew there was nothing I could do to make it happen.

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Khumbu Climbing Center Crew Climbing Off the Trail

The next morning, Dean made the call. It was time to head to Namche and get medical attention. We unloaded virtually everything from my daypack, overpaid a Sherpani woman to carry our big packs down to Namche, said our good-byes to the people in Phortse, and began the trek out.

I felt good during the 30 minute hike down the hill from Phortse to the river, but prepared myself for the brutal climb up to Mong La. Luckily, this side of the hill is shorter than its sister trail on the other side of the pass. Unfortunately, that means that the path is more vertical, comprised almost entirely of switchbacks and irregular rock stairs. I tried putting in headphones and counting my steps, but towards the top, with Mong La still towering above us, I could only manage 20 at a time before needing to sit down.

After an hour and a half, we finally made it to the top. The lodge owners remembered us from a few days prior and asked if I was feeling any better – I wasn’t. I spent our hour long break with my eyes closed, laying on Dean’s pack in the sun streaming in through the windows. Once lunch was eaten, we said good-bye (and good riddance) to Mong La and cruised down the long hill. We passed a dozen groups of trekkers, in the same state of struggle we had experienced days prior, causing us to christen the hill “Soul Crusher.”

The remainder of the hike was mostly downhill and we made it to Namche just after 2:00pm. We proceeded to the clinic and checked the placard listing the opening hours posted on the side door – Open Monday – Friday until 3:00pm. We had barely made it! As we proceed to the main door and we were confronted with a handwritten sign stating that the clinic would close at 1:00pm on Fridays, and is closed on Saturdays. Welcome to Nepal!

The next day, Dean consulted with Dawa, the owner of our lodge, and called Tsering to discuss our options. He was told that there was a slight possibility of getting a helicopter down to Lukla, otherwise we would make the 2 – 3 day hike out the next morning. At 3:00pm we received a call from Dawa, stating that he could get us a helicopter down to Lukla. Oh, and we had to be at the helipad at the top of the village in the next 20 minutes. We made a mad dash sprint up to the helipad, my big pack strapped to my back while Dean balanced my daypack on top of the large pack on his back, while his daypack was strapped to his front. I would have applauded his strength if I hadn’t been about to pass out. We made it to the helipad with 3 minutes to spare.

As soon as our helicopter landed, Dean hustled me up the step and I scooted along the back seat. He and Dawa then threw in our bags and we were away. The whole operation took less than 2 minutes. Tears had filled my eyes while saying good-bye to Dawa and once seated, I couldn’t hold back any longer. I unceremoniously cried as a large group of trekkers stood at the edge of the helipad, taking pictures of the fascinating performance.

The ride down to Lukla took no longer than 15 minutes and during the journey I was conflicted. I was heartbroken, tears streaming down my face, but we had just paid $300 for this helicopter and damn it, I was going to get my money’s worth of stunning views!

I was still bawling as we disembarked in Lukla and made our way to The Nest, our lodge for the night. We shared the dining room with several trekkers and a group of porters playing dice, all of which were giving me sideways glances as the tears continued to fall. Dean finally got the key to our room and ushered me upstairs. For the next 20 minutes, he rubbed my back as I cried. I felt like a complete failure.

Dean let me cry, allowing me to grieve. After my tears were finished and I was hiccuping like a small child, he said something that blew my mind (as he does on occasion). He reminded me that the reason why I wanted to take this trip was to learn and grow, to put myself in uncomfortable situations to hopefully gain perspective and become a better person. And this is how life works – sometimes, you have to deal with disappointment and unfulfilled expectations. Maybe, this experience could help me learn that some things are outside of my control. Not a welcome message to a person who is super Type A.

As I reflected on it further, I realized that he’s right. Life is all about change. It’s good to have big dreams, to constantly be striving for something. But you also need to know when to recalibrate. The learning happens throughout the journey.

I’ve learned a lot over the last few weeks. I’ve never questioned that I’m made of some stern stuff and that I can push well past my limits. But this experience has helped to remind me that I’m not invincible, my health is important and I need to listen to my body. I need to accept change and count my blessings. And maybe most importantly, this experience has demonstrated that I have someone who loves me more than anything, even the highest mountain in the world.

KHUMBU-6

Though We Leave the Khumbu – The Journey Continues