Australia

We were welcomed to Australia by an immigration officer at the Sydney airport. He said, “There are six things you need to know about Australia. The first, if you see a snake, it’s poisonous and will kill you. The second, if you see a spider, it’s poisonous and will kill you. Third, if you see jellyfish, they are poisonous and will kill you. Tiny purple octopus, same thing. The last two things I’ll let you figure out.” Unfortunately, Nick, Larry, Kaitlin and I were never able to figure out his last two points, but luckily we weren’t killed by poison.

Flying from NZ back to the East Coast consisted of flying to Australia, Hawaii, Vegas, and Minneapolis to Dulles. Thus, we decided if we had to fly through Australia we should extend our layover. This gave us 9 days to explore the enormous country. Sydney was a modern, clean and hip city. It’s tall skyscrapers and bay front downtown reminded Nick and I of Singapore. Although we loved New Town, a young and trendy neighborhood, I realized my previous fascination with hip cities had faded. It seemed to lack the history and culture smaller cities like Dunedin in New Zealand maintained. Around Sydney, we spent time exploring the famous opera house, which was actually compiled of three small separate buildings. We ate some delicious food and visited with our friend Faye, that Nick and I spent 2 weeks with in Mongolia. While I went to work with Faye; Nick, Larry, and Kaitlin bowled on the beach and walked along the coast from Bondi and Bronte.

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Sydney Opera House

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We rented a car and left Sydney to road trip towards Melbourne. The highlight of the road trip was ocean pools an hour outside of Sydney. Known for the figure 8 pool, these pools were created from the ocean waves crashing on limestone. The crystal clear water was beautiful, and cold. As we left, another guy entered the pool and a huge wave crashed over the rocks. He was lost underwater and his friends were also pushed down under the wave. Everyone was fine but it was a reminder of the waters strength.

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Figure 8 Pool

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We spent the next few nights camping and days hiking to various view points. We hiked along the coast at Hicks’s point and enjoyed secluded beaches. Every evening, around dusk, thousands of kangaroos hopped around the surrounding fields and we had to avoid them on the road. We eventually left the coast and drove through the outback. This dry landscape was my favorite. The gold fields were dotted with sheep and cattle and rolling hills for as far as the eye could see.

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Hiking the coast at Hick’s Point
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Nick loves taking photos of me after an argument

We returned our car and took a 12 hour train to Melbourne. We CouchSurfed on the 47th floor of the tallest building in the Southern Hemisphere. Sleeping next to clear glass walls that overlooked the city and barbecuing on the balcony we felt extremely fortunate. Our host was extremely interesting and we spent time philosophizing, taking photos (as he is a photographer) and visiting the pub downstairs. It was an extremely unique experience and an exciting place to spend our last 2 nights traveling.

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Queen Victoria Market Street Art
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Melbourne
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View from our CouchSurfing’s apartment (47th floor)

 

This trip has been amazing and Nick and I were sad to be leaving. Thankfully, we had 36 hours of transit to reflect before surprising my folks in PA!

Recommendations:

Messina (Sydney) – gelato (the lychee coconut was amazing!)

Lentils As Anything (Sydney) – a nonprofit volunteer run restaurant with delicious food and pay by donation

Queen Victoria Market (Melbourne) – an enormous meat, cheese, honey, spice, produce and chotchkie market.

 

South Island

After arriving in Picton, Stacia, Larry, Kaitlin and I drove to Nelson before stopping and making lunch in town. The drive was diverse with mountain peaks and wineries lining the road. Nelson was a very quaint town with many pubs and cafes. We enjoyed free parking and Wi-Fi all over town before moving on to Motueka, the gateway of Abel Tasman National Park.

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The Abel Tasman Coast Track is 72 km of ocean views traditionally hiked over 5 days. We decided to spend 2 days hiking the most scenic 45 km with Larry and Kaitlin going the opposite direction to the shuttle our van back at the end. The first day went perfectly with sunny weather and idyllic views of craggy green coastline. Stacia and I had to time our hiking in order to arrive at the Awaroa Inlet at low tide to cross. We arrived with enough time and crossed in knee-deep water and met Larry and Kaitlin at Bark Bay for camp. We enjoyed a pho dinner and jumped in our bags early to avoid the cold.

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Abel Tasman Hike

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The next morning we soaked in the beachfront view before continuing our hike. We waited for Larry and Kaitlin past dark and began to suspect something was wrong. I hiked to cell service and received a message stating that they’d been in an accident. Thankfully no one was hurt, however a new driver took out the front side of our campervan. After changing our plans, driving to Christchurch, switching out multiple vehicles and paying for the damage, calling it a nuisance would be an understatement.

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Beachfront property

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Drive to Christchurch

Stacia took the 3 days we needed to wait for a new van to visit an old friend and do some MBA work. She explored Christchurch and said the city’s recovery from the 2011 earthquake was still very present. Larry, Kaitlin and I drove west to hike Fox and Franz- Joseph Glacier.

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Lake Matheson
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Mt. Tasman & Mt. Cook

We returned to Christchurch to pick up Stacia and our new van. We were snowed in for an evening, however eventually made it to Otago. We Couchsurfed in Dunedin and had a blast. We watched NZ movies with our host and she shared with us her library on NZ food, beer and culture. We spotted multiple sea lions and 2 yellow-eyed penguins at Sandfly Bay.

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Campervan keys, couchsurfing keys & possum ball (threat to NZ)
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Can you spot the penguin?

From Dunedin, we drove to touristed Queenstown, which reminded Stacia and I of any posh Colorado ski resort town, like Breckinridge or Beaver Creek. I took a day to ski at Treble Cone and Larry and Kaitlin hiked around Wanaka Lake.

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Lake Wanaka

Our last stop in New Zealand was Stacia and I’s favorite. After working for Point6, a merino wool outdoor clothing company in Colorado, Stacia made friends with their wool supplier in NZ. Stacia and I had both brought 2 pairs of Point6 socks on our yearlong backpacking trip and they are still in perfect condition. We were thrilled to see where the wool came from and visit Kirsty, Simon and their 3 boys at Glenbrook Station. We were shown not only their 7,000+ sheep, but also their cattle, chickens, dogs, fields, garden and wool shed. The evening light lit up the snow-covered mountains and it felt like we reached utopia. We were taught about different breeds of sheep, micron, burrs and rots. I was admiring sheep, while wearing their wool and later that night, eating their meat. We were thankful for Kirsty and Simon’s hospitality and sad to leave but excited for our last adventure, Australia.

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Getting ready to feed the dogs

Reccomendation:

Best pies in New Zealand: Fairlie Bakehouse – Fairlie, NZ

North Island

Arriving in Auckland, NZ was a big change. After traveling in South Asia for 9 months, we had become accustomed to the disorganized traffic, warm weather and cheap eats. Immediately upon arriving I changed from my flip flops and shorts to boots and pants. Stacia and Larry’s boots along with our tent had to be thoroughly cleaned in a lab before being allowed through biosecurity. We were quickly picked up by Lucky Rentals and given our new home, a 2005 converted Toyota Hiace campervan. With two double beds, stovetop, sink and fridge, this was the perfect NZ road trip machine. After stocking up on groceries, we walked around Auckland and enjoyed the view from One Tree Hill. Auckland was a manicured, green, and surprisingly large city. To escape expensive accommodations, we left town and freedom camped (parking in unpopulated areas) on the way to Hamilton. The night was a surprisingly warm 42 degrees.

In the morning, we explored the Hamilton gardens which was repurposed from an old landfill and represented a dozen countries. Their was a Japanese, Chinese, and Indian garden, all of which well represented the gardens Stacia and I have seen on our travels. Hamilton was one of a half dozen small quaint towns we drove through with many coffee shops and small markets on the way to Waitomo. Waitomo is one of a handful of places in NZ you can see glow worms. We spent 45 minutes exploring a cave, culminating in a boat ride under thousands of luminescent worms. After the caves, we took a scenic drive passing caves, a natural rock bridge and waterfalls to camp on the west coast.

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Ngaru Pupu Point

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In the morning, we explored a beautiful black sand beach connected to our camp by a 100 meter pedestrian tunnel. After walking the beach and making our feet thoroughly numb we drove the 3 hours to Lake Taupo. This lake is a hotspot of geologic activity. A geothermal and hydropower site produces %15 of the electricity for the entire country. We spent the afternoon bathing in a hot stream and viewing the Huka Falls.

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We woke up early at the base of Mt. Ngauruhoe to hike the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. This popular day hike enjoys views of a apocalyptic volcanic landscape over 20 km. We stoped to enjoy views of Tongariro National Park, the emerald lakes and various craters. After hiking, we started our drive to Wellington which zig zagged through lush green farm land dotted by sheep.

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Emerald Lakesa

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The next day, we drove directly to Mt. Victoria to enjoy views of Wellington before going to the Te Papa Museum. Larry and Kaitlin enjoyed a day at some wineries near Wellington while Stacia and I did some work at a coffee shop. We camped on the coast south of the city.

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Wellington

The following day, we woke up early to take the interislander ferry to the South Island. This was by far the most beautiful ferry I have ever taken, moving from open ocean to a mountain lined bay on the way to Picton. The ship resembled more of a cruise ship then cargo ferry. We were eager to explore the South Island.

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First impressions:
– Wellington is a less crazy version of San Francisco
– New Zealand is a more organized version of the States
– Unlike the U.S. the cops are no where to be found
– Free public restrooms can be found on every block
– Most towns offer free wifi
– Freedom camping is easily accessible

Food:
– meat pie
– Fish and chips
– Feijoa
– Vegimite
– Flat white
– Yams
– Kumara

Jakarta & Yogyakarta

Jakarta was polluted and congested. We spent the majority of our time bussing to and from bus stations trying to arrange our transport for the next day to Yogyakarta. We were traveling during the busiest time of year, Eid Al Fitr. Everyone was leaving the city to spend time with their family and a news crew was covering the mayhem at the station. The next day we spent 19 hours on the road, only to travel 550 km (340 miles).

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Jakarta Cathedral

We arrived to Yogyakarta (Jogja) just in time to meet up with our CouchSurfering friend, Isa, and celebrate the end of Ramadan. We went to a local parade in Yogyakarta with lots of kids, costumes and floats. Of the 30 mosques that performed in front of judges, a story that stood out to me most was about terrorism. It started with kids being beaten and killed with cardboard guns and swords by teenage terrorists. Their tank float followed with fireworks. The message was simple, people associate Islam with terrorism, but 95% of people killed by terrorists are Muslim.

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The next morning was Ek and Nick, Larry, Kaitlin and I went to the local square to watch early morning prayer. 5,000 individuals filled the green. It reminded me of Easter in the US in that families were dressed to the T in matching custom fabrics. The genders separated, men to the front and women to the back. Everyone laid out a piece of newspaper and proceeded to place their personal carpet on top. Women put on loose fitting coveralls, which hid their colorful new outfits. After a few minutes prayer was over and all that was left was a field full of crumpled newspapers and street food vendors.

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Morning Payer

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We enjoyed some amazing meals and different variations of local coffee. Whether we bought juicy sweet tofu off of a women selling fried goods from a basket on the street or were sitting on mats on the sidewalk we had a blast. Young musicians played guitar and violin and we enjoyed walking around the old dutch quarter. Below is a list of local foods and drinks.

  • Local coffee (kopi):
    • kopi luwak (civet coffee) – expensive, full bodied, cat poop coffee. The local palm civet, catlike animal, eats coffee berries, and passes the inner pit through its digestive system intact. The stomach enzymes are believed to add value to the flavor of the coffee.
    • Java coffee (named after the island of Java)- ground into powder and drank as the grounds settle
    • kopi joss (charcoal coffee) – My absolute favorite. Powdered local grounds were spooned into a glass cup and mixed with water. Then a red hot charcoal was placed right in the coffee. It has a perfect roasted flavor.
      Spiced coffee
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Bottom Right to Left- Poop, Cleaned Poop with Rice, Washed Poop      Top Left to Right- Baked Beans, Roasted Beans, Ground Beans
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Pet Civet
  • Local dishes:
    • gudeg – young jackfruit, coconut milk curry, fried tempe, peanuts, chicken, water spinach and rice
    • nasi langgi – coconut sticky rice with with fried tempe wrapped in a banana leaf
    • sweet fried tofu/ tempe – perfectly juicy soy made with palm cigar, tamarind, cloves and shallot
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Gudeg

After the morning prayers Larry and Kaitlin went to the beaches south of Yogyakarta which they reported were very nice despite it being low tide with a lot of rocks.

Nick, Larry and Kaitlin visited both Prambanan and Borobudur temples. Prambanan is a 9th century Hindu temple dedicated to Shiva the god of destruction. The temple was comprised of one main temple for Shiva and his reincarnates. The outer temples were dedicated to children and wives. The panels around the sides of the temple told the stories of the Hindu epics and were in remarkable shape being 1200 years old. The temples were abandoned in the 10th century and collapsed in an earthquake in the 16th century. They were only refurbished in the last 60 years and later dedicated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. After the Prambanan they went to Plaosan a temple dedicated to the Buddhist queen of one of the Hindu kings. This marriage is what reconciled the conflict between the Hindu and Buddhist cultures 1200 years ago.

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Shiva
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Story Panel
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Temple

The following day Nick, Larry and Kaitlin went to a Borobudur the main Buddhist site for the Empire that fought against the Hindus at Prambanan. Borobudur is the largest Buddhist temple in the world. With over 500 meditating buddha statues and 2,600 relief panels telling Buddhist stories, it was a very impressive site. Pilgrims come from all Buddhist countries to pay homage to one of the greatest Buddhist empires of history. The introduction of Islam and the collapse of the Buddhist and Hindu empires led to the abandonment of both these sites less than 150 years after being built.

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Sunrise Above Temples
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Sunrise Buddha
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Volcanoes of Java

Unfortunately, I stayed back to work on my summer assignments for my MBA. Nick has done an impeccable job planning and I like to believe I’ve done a great job documenting the trip. However, to give me time to focus on my schoolwork, Nick has agreed to write the remaining blog posts for NZ and Australia, whoop whoop! Stay tuned.

Restaurant Recommendations:
Via Via – impeccable western and Indonesian food, amazing atmosphere and even better wifi
Gudeg Tugu – chicken or tofu gudeg, our favorite meal in Indonesia
The House of Raminten – we didn’t make it here as it was closed for Ramadan, but it came highly recommended by our Couchsurfer

Aceh State

Pulau Weh (Iboih)

Nick, Kaitlin, Larry and I headed north passing through Medan and Banda Aceh, before taking a ferry to the island of Pulau Weh. The town of Iboih was half developed and most everything was closed due to Ramadan. However, this didn’t cause any problems as we spent the majority of our time underwater. Known to be the best place in the Indian Ocean to dive, it’s unnecessary to say that we had a blast. Larry, Kaitlin and Nick went on multiple fun dives, while I completed my open water diver certification. Although a small achievement, I was extremely proud of myself for getting over my fear of scuba diving. After a handful of dives, we spotted: reef shark, sting rays, moray eels, turtles, puffer fish, octopus, sea cucumber, sea urchins, lionfish, catfish, rainbow fish, and a million other unknown colorful creatures.

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Moray eel

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Put your hands in the air if … you’re Kaitlin under water

On some of my dives, I saw motorbikes and cars sitting on the ocean floor as a result of the 2004 Tsunami. We spoke with Norma, the owner of our bungalow, about the affects the Tsunami had on a Pulau Weh. She said that 11 people had died, the island wasn’t hit nearly as hard as Banda Aceh where over 61,000 people were killed. She told us that the people on the island stopped eating fish because they were finding human parts in them and that they began to eat a lot of dried sting ray as so many washed up onto shore. She made it clear that the natural disaster was tied to religion, she mentioned people being saved maybe because they were good muslims and mentioned how she didn’t see many children in the mass graves, she didn’t know why, maybe they were spared. She remembered people climbing up coconut trees and after the destruction, individuals from Medan coming and stealing family land from the deceased. The destruction on Sumatra was unimaginable and we were looked forward to learning more in Banda Aceh.

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sunrise from our bungalow
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Aceh State (Sharia Law)
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bungalow betches

Banda Aceh

We all like to think that we are open-minded and have global perspectives, however we all make preconceived notions, and I am no different. After watching a VICE episode filmed in Banda Aceh about Sharia Law, to be honest I was a little nervous about visiting. I recalled them interviewing a man who had pledged his alliance to ISIS and the strict law that forbid public display of affection, western dress, non- conservative dress, drugs and alcohol, the meeting of non- married couples, and homosexuality. The episode showed a man receiving 80+ canes in the town square for breaking what felt like a petty crime. I checked the state department site to make sure there were no dangers for tourists and was eager to learn more about these differences. It turns out, it felt just like many other Southeast Asian cities. It wasn’t dangerous and didn’t feel oppressed. We had to be mindful of our actions, dress appropriately, and avoid eating in public due Ramadan. However, wherever you travel you should be respectful of the local culture and religion. Locals were friendly and shouting, “Good morning!” and “What’s your name?” as they sped by on their motorbikes. We thoroughly enjoyed the wealthy city (from oil) and explored the markets and many colorful fishing boats.

On our first night, we met up with a CouchSurfer who took us out for street food and when his phone flashed 6:40, we heard the mosque sirens and broke fast. He left for 2 hours to pray and we reunited around 11 pm. He picked us up with his friends to eat a second meal as most individuals fasting eat very late then again at 4am before prayer. We ate Aceh noodle soup with seafood and drank juice that consisted of avocado, jackfruit and coconut. He showed us around the Masjid Raya, which was the most beautiful mosque I have seen on our travels. The intricate marble screens were beautiful, the complex was enormous and it was immaculately maintained. 12 umbrellas modeled after those in Medina (Saudi Arabia) made it feel very modern. We learned that the small Banda Aceh airport, which offers 6 flights a day, has 2 direct flights to Medina per week. Our CouchSurfer told us how difficult and expensive it was to make a pilgrimage there or to Mecca, but anyone that did was extremely lucky.

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Masjid Raya in Banda Aceh
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Google image of Medina
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CouchSurfing with new friends
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marble screens
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Fulfill the call to prayer, pray, uphold Islamic law

The next day, Nick, Kaitlin, Larry and I visited the Tsunami museum, which was not only well done, but also heart wrenching. Between fighting with the Dutch, a civil war and the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, this city had a hard history. As we entered the museum we walked through a dark hallway with 98 ft. walls of dripping water, this represented the height of the waves in Aceh.

  • Both earthquake epicenters (9.2 magnitude and 7.5) were only 250 km from the state of Aceh, however its affects were seen in Thailand, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, India, Maldives, Somalia, Malaysia and Seychelles.
  • Of the 250,000 people that were killed from the tsunami, 61,000 were in Banda Aceh.
  • Similar to stories we heard in Sri Lanka, locals walked out on the exposed ocean floor collecting fish, unsure of what was happening. The ocean receded 900 ft. before the initial 98 ft. wave crashed the shore.
  • 4 mass graves are located in Banda Aceh, where the victims of the tsunami rest.
  • In Aceh history, tsunamis are known as le Beuna, a warning from Allah to all of human society to get back to the right side of life.
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Most Indonesians took the tsunami as a sign from God
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A 65 ton boat stranded 1 km from the river stuck on top of a house, saving 59 people.
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A 2,600 ton electric generator ship that was washed 2.5 km from the coast, now stranded in a residential neighborhood

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We would have loved to spend a few more days in Banda Aceh (and in every other town we’ve visited in Sumatra) but had to catch our flight to Jakarta. We boarded the plane to an announcement stating, “Any trafficking of drugs will end in the penalty of death.” It was obvious that all of our bags had been thoroughly searched as zippers were opened, clothes were moved and books pages were ripped.

Recommendations:

Olala & Oong Bungalows (Iboih) – both offer cheap accommodations with great meals; also try Dee Dee’s Kitchen next to Rubiah Divers

Rubiah Tirta Divers (Iboih)- the only locally owned dive shop on the island, you get lots of personalized attention, but don’t expect the staff to start early. They offer great Ramadan specials, open water PADI certification 3,200,000 rupiah ($240)

Ramadan street food (Banda Aceh)- at 4pm (only during Ramadan) the streets are lined with delicious sticky rice, sweets, fruit soup, noodles, fish curries, fried tofu, peanut salad and fruit. By 6pm, everything is sold out and everyone is closing shop. Take it to go and eat in private or wait until sunset to eat with the locals.

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Ramadan street food
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fruit soup

North Sumatra

Not only is Lake Toba the largest lake in Southeast Asia, it is the largest volcanic lake in the world. Nick, Larry, Kaitlin and I spent 2 days relaxing around the sleepy town of Tuk Tuk and were thankful we were not visiting during high season. We observed a local wedding, enjoyed local coffee, and (they) ate fresh water fish and crawfish. Lake Toba is home to Christain Batak people; we visited execution sites as Bataks practiced ritual cannibalism until 1816. We drove by numerous churches, tombs and traditional Batak homes. It felt like traditional homes were the affordable housing option for lower income individuals. The newer more elaborate Batak homes seemed to be built solely for tourism. We rented a motorbike, drove along the “coast” and visited some extremely hot, hot springs. The lush and volcanic landscape reminded Larry and Kaitlin of Hawaii.

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Lake Toba
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traditional Batak homes

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hot springs
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local wedding celebrations
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Larry & Kaitlin at Lake Toba

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We headed north to Berstagi, a small hill town that sat among volcanoes and that we came to cherish. The volcanic soil made it ideal for growing produce and we passed fields of cabbage, green onion, pineapple, orange, and coffee. Exploring the markets and street food were among our favorite activities. The highlight of our time spent in Berstagi was hiking Gunung Sibayak (volcano). We began hiking at 4 am in order to catch a beautiful sunrise. The crater and fluorescent yellow vents were a sight but nothing in comparison to the view across the valley of Gurung Sinabung (2,450 m). As I was posing for photos with some locals, Nick shouted “Look behind you!” Black smoke began to rise from the massive volcano, it was an eruption. For anyone that knows me, I began to slightly panic. I looked at the girls that I was taking photos with and asked if this was normal. They said no and that they were scared. Little did I know that it is an extremely active volcano and has small eruptions 2-5 times a day. I was being punk’d! The most recent large eruption was in May 2017 where 2 aid workers were killed trying to rescue residents. We hiked down the volcano’s backside through lush jungle and soaked in some hot springs at the bottom.

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Gurung Sinabung (2,450 m)

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On top of Gurung Sibayak
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BATMAN – bats sold at the local market (most often eaten in soup)
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bathing at the hot springs

Recommendations:

Sibayak (Lake Toba) – budget friendly rooms right on the lake, when you are ready to leave, simply flag down the ferry.

Wisma Sibayak (Berstagi) – cute rooms for 60,000 rupiah ($4.50) tucked off of main street, excellent find and strong wifi.

Family Baru (Berstagi) – try the coffee, ginger & egg white drink, you can’t go wrong with any of the food.

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kopi telor kocok – raw egg, ginger & coffee

West Sumatra

After taking a 3-month break from Southeast Asia, it was nice to return. Nick, Larry, Kaitlin and I purchased the cheapest flights from Kathmandu to Indonesia and landed in Padang (West Sumatra). The rice paddy fields, fresh fruit, street food and paved roads were back! 90% of Indonesian’s population is Muslim and it felt like we drove by a beautiful mosque every 5 minutes. Almost every woman wore a hijab and during the call to prayer you could hear it from every direction. The handful of Westerns we saw at the airport and in Padang had a surfboard in hand and was headed to the islands.

As we explored the clean, quant city during the day, it felt dead. Most of the restaurants were closed or had fabric veiling the door. We saw signs in Indonesian which translated to special service non-Muslims. This confused us. We walked along the river then near the ocean. Locals honked and screamed “hello.” Students interview Kaitlin to practice their English and the Indonesians smiled at us curiously. We laughed at the local mode of transportation, opelets, which were souped up vans with tinted windows, rims, and a pounding base. By 2 pm, large tables were set up along the road selling bags of noodles, sweets, and other foods “to-go”. We all took a nap, tired from only getting 2 hours of sleep during our transit and returned back to town for dinner. It felt like we were transported to a young hip city! There was street food everywhere and teens hung out at coffee, grass jelly juice, noodle, and meat kabobs carts. Then it clicked. All of these unique things were happening because we had arrived halfway through Ramadan, the largest Muslim holiday of the year. Although this eventually caused small complications with access to food, appropriateness of eating in public, increased traffic, and increased ticket fares; we were excited to experience the holiday.

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The next day, we took a bus to Harau Valley, often called the Yosemite of Asia. Tall walls of metamorphic rock lined the sides of the valley. Nick and I were looking forward to climbing, however the only rental shop was unfortunately closed due to the holiday. We stayed at Adhi Homestay, a cute cluster of bungalows that sat among waterfalls, flooded rice fields and fruit trees. We heard fruit constantly dropping out of trees, and enjoyed all sorts of fruit, including: bananas, jackfruit, passion fruit, wild guava, cacao, durian, soursop, dragon fruit, milk fruit, breadfruit, tamarillo, jicama, salak and coconuts. We ate our weight in passion fruit and I helped a girl climb a large tree to pick them. At 6:30 pm we heard a loud siren. Coming from Hawaii, Larry thought this was a tsunami siren. It followed with many call to prayers that echoed off the valley walls. This was the siren that marked sunset and those fasting were now allowed to eat. We learned that Muslims refrain from eating, drinking water, smoking cigarettes, and other worldly possessions (including sex) from sunrise (4:30am) to sunset (6:30pm). However, children and menstruating women do not participate the entire month.

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We spent a day relaxing, exploring nearby villages and taking a cooking class. We learned how to make chicken (young jackfruit for the veg option) rendang, a local Indonesian dish that is similar to a korma curry. We also made an eggplant and tempeh dish, and learned that tempeh originated in Indonesia. Unlike tofu, which is pressed soy milk (using mature soybeans (gold in color)), tempeh is made up of the entire bean, compressed. We also made some fried vegetable patties and banana jackfruit patties. We ate dinner with locals and foreigners and Nick, Larry and I had our cards read by a spunky local who had some surprisingly accurate things to say.

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On our last day in the valley, we hiked a steep ascent to enjoy a panoramic view. Volcanoes in the distance peaked out behind clouds and we could hear the call to prayer from the mosques below. The majority of the green valley consisted of flooded rice fields and fisheries. We observed henna, chili, clove and cacao growing. We saw a scary scorpion the size of my hand, but thankfully no snakes. Indonesia is notorious for its pythons. A few months ago a farmer disappeared in Sulawesi only to be found in the belly of a python nearby. Our guide informed us that this was rare, however in West Sumatra snakes eating children have become a pressing issue. The government has made it legal to hunt snakes for the local’s protection. We continued hiking through the jungle, crawled through caves and swam in waterfalls. Another surprising fact we learned was that Harau Valley was based off of a maternal society. Men had to pay a female’s mother to marry and it usually costs 16,000,000 rupiah ($1,200). It’s difficult for a man to find a wife as she must be in another group, approved by the village chief, and the man must be able to afford the dowry proposed by the mother. If a man is wealthy, like in many Asian countries, he can have many wives.

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That evening we took 3 modes of transportation to Northern Sumatra and traveled 515 kilometers (300 miles) in 16 hours.

Food:

Sari Rosa – similar to lunches in Myanmar, this local shop serves a dozen of small veg and non beg options and rice, you pay for the dishes you eat.

Try buff (water buffalo) or chicken rendang, chili grilled fish and abundance of tofu and tempeh. During Ramadan, sweets can be found everywhere. Try the fruit soup, green rice flower balls covered in fresh coconut and filled with palm sugar, butternut squash sweets or a pink coconut milk soup with tapioca squares.

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Kathmandu & Pokhara

Although Nick and I were having a hoot in India, after 2 months we were beginning to feel exhausted. We crossed into Nepal by land and the difference was night and day. Nepalis smiled at us and helped us cross the border. They made sure we got on the right bus and pointed out their favorite momo hut. Nick thought it was all a trick or maybe we were getting scammed but I assured him that Nepalis were the kindest of them all. The 11 hour bus ride from the Indian border to Kathmandu was exciting to say the least. We were surprised by how undeveloped the only road into the capital was and we followed a deep gorge the entire way. We saw vehicles teetering off the edge and although our bus driver drove like a lunatic (like all bus drivers in Asia) we were thankful when we arrived safely.

I was elated to be back in Nepal and although Kathmandu was dusty and touristed I was excited to return. The affects from the 2015 earthquake were very present and Kathmandu reminded both Nick and I of the soviet era capital of Mongolia (Ulan Batar). We appreciated the law against unnecessary honking. We watched people line the street and march for their favored party in the upcoming election. The election was a big deal as this was the first local election in 20 years. Nick and I spent a few days running errands and arranging our trek to Dolpo before picking up Larry and Kaitlin (our friends from Hawaii) from the airport. Before trek we spent a few days exploring the city.

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Boudhanath Stupa
  • We spent Buddha’s birthday at Boudhanath Stupa
  • Durbar Square (UNESCO World Heritage Site)
  • Pashupatinath Temple (Hindu)
  • Swayambhunath Stupa
  • Garden of Dreams

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My highlight was spending time with Sri and Tsewang, friends I met in Nepal in 2012 and later worked with when I worked for an adventure travel company, Above the Clouds. We had many meals together and gained local knowledge on the election, Mustang, politics, and climate change.

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After our 20+ day on trek (Dolpo Trek blog post), Nick, Larry, Kaitlin and I were excited to head to Pokhara, mostly looking forward to bathing and eating. I remembered Pokhara as a small lakeside city with lychee trees and ping pong. However, the amount of development and construction in the past 5 years was astonishing. It felt like any college town from the states plopped into the rainforest. There were hundreds of hotels and I was surprised to see fast food chains and box stores.

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Before leaving Kathmandu we were thrilled to find lychee season begun! We prompty ate 4 pounds of lychee and many mangos before boarding our flight for Indonesia!

 

Kathmandu Eats:

Momo Hut- palak paneer momos, palak and peanuts, garlic and cheese chilimomos

Utse- a Tibetan restaurant that offers great hot pots and Tongba (hot water poured over fermented millet)

Fren’s Kitchen- great tofu steak and best wifi in Thamel

Fire & Ice- a delicious pizza place for Western cravings after trek

Rosemary- Western breakfast

Lassi- a delicious local lassi stand on Thamel Marg (40 R for a small, 70 R for a large)

Dolpo Trek

 

Roads- 5 years ago I had a remarkable experience in Mustang, Nepal. Nick and I knew that we wanted to travel in a remote area (specifically in Western Nepal), however heard that Mustang changed due to a newly built road. We wanted to experience a culture not yet impacted by connectivity and decided to trek in Dolpo, Nepal. We were thrilled that Nick’s childhood best friend Larry and his partner Kaitlin would be joining us from Hawaii.

During our 20+ days on trek, we noticed that there seemed to be no thought that went into the development of roads, specifically around how it would impact the local culture. People seem to come into remote areas and build roads before there is even access to vehicles (we saw this in the canyon to Nawwapani). Our guide told us that locals expect there to be a road connecting Dolpo in 3-4 years. People want development and access, however it doesn’t seem like there is enough thought in the planning, only considering immediate economic impacts. On our travels, we found that roads in Darjeeling were well planned. Locals had access to the road, however it was about a half-hour walk and it not only preserved the environment, but also the culture.

Money- When trekking, most tourists give all of their money to a large company in Kathmandu to plan and arrange their entire trip. We found that although this approach is more encompassing, it is more expensive and only supports some local staff. We found that it was hard to arrange a trek in remote areas without strong contacts. In Mongolia, Nick and I got lucky with a local recommendation from Lonely Planet, however in Nepal, we compromised with using a company to find our guide and help with permits and flights. We decided to pay for food and shelter as we went. We were surprised to learn that during our guide’s 16 years of guiding, this was the first time he had lead a trip like this in Dolpo.

We were happy with our decision as we felt we were paying more to the local community in comparison to a big trekking group. In many small villages, we were able to stay with a family in a teahouse, while another group (the only trekking group we saw in 21 days) camped outside and ate food brought from Kathmandu. We feel our approach allowed for a more authentic experience, however was more difficult as we carried our own gear, ate 28 dhal bhat meals (lentils and rice), and got cold and wet. Later, we did discover that our guide and 2 porters were not getting paid what we were told, however tried to compensate this by providing them with a nice tip at the end.

Yartsa Gunbu- This fungus grows on insects found above 13,000 ft. in mountainous regions of Nepal and Tibet. In Tibet, it is literally translated to “winter worm, summer grass.” It is valued in China as an herbal remedy and 1 kg is valued at $20,000. Yartsa Gunbu is predominately found in the Dolpo region of Nepal. The Chinese created this economy and most families in Dolpo earn their yearly income in 3-4 weeks of collecting, then focus on sustenance farming the rest of the year. Every year, less and less Yartsa Gunbu is found. It’s a double edge sword because it provides an economic opportunity, however there is no regulation on how collectors treat the environment. Trash, feces and make shift tents litter mountain passes. Camps run on a Yartsa Gunbu economy and locals trade one piece ($5) for a beer. Police are sent to the mountains and monitor remote areas for security. Collectors seem to treat each other well, they look together and families send their children up to collect in order to make money.

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$2,000 worth of Yartsa Gunbu

Day 1- We flew from Nepalgunj to Juphal and the highlight of the mountainous flight was the scary landing. We hiked 3 hours through green barley fields and a deep dry valley to Dunai. The view was remarkable and the snow capped mountains were a constant reminder we were trekking in the Himalayas. In Dunai, curious kids greeted us and directed us to a teahouse. Tibetan Buddhist prayer flags flew from the top of each home and elders walked around the town spinning prayer wheels and counting mala beads.

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Day 2- We hiked 5 hours to Chhepka. We began in the desert, followed a raging blue/ green river, and then hiked in woods. Mossy trees, birds, suspension bridges, and rain. We passed abandoned villages as all of the locals moved to higher elevation to search for Yartsa Gunbu. The woman at the local teahouse made the best Tibetan butter tea. We noticed one of our porters being treated poorly as he was Buddhist and the other porter and guide were Hindu. He carried a heavier load and was responsible for far more tasks in comparison. We read about this phenomenon in The Snow Leopard, which was written in he 70’s and were surprised to see it continuing to happen today.

Day 3- We hiked for 5 hours up and down to Chunnuwaur. We continued to follow the river and eventually exited tree line. We passed many lines of horses and mules, the head animal wore a beautiful bell and headdress made of yak hair.

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Day 4- 3 ½ hour hike to Phoksundo Lake. We hiked up to a viewpoint and saw a spectacular waterfall. We were greeted by smiling snot-covered kids in Ringmo, holding their hands together screaming “Namaste.” We played Frisbee near the glistening lake and visited an 800-year-old Bon monastery. Bon is religion that came to Tibet before Buddhism, however buddhist doctrines and rituals have been incorporated making it the sixth branch of Tibetan Buddhism. We walked past stupas, and noticed the auspicious swastika symbol is reversed in Bon (yungdrung).

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Phoksundo Lake

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Day 5- Phoksundo Lake is 3 miles long, ½ mile wide and ½ mile deep. There is no life in or on the fresh water lake; there are no algae, fish, or boats. Today, we took a “rest day” and hiked 4 ½ hours along a ridge above the lake. We had a great view of Upper Dolpo. We listened to wild jackals in the evening and watched mules eat salt. When the man of the teahouse returned from visiting his second wife, he made us a delicious roasted marijuana seed (non psychotropic), tomato and chili paste to eat with our dhal bhat. We learned that the communist party may have won the election and wondered how this would affect Nepal’s political future.

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Day 6- 2 ½ hours to Yak Kharka then 3 hours to Bagala basecamp. We had beautiful views overlooking the gorge and looking back at lake. We dropped into a green meadow with glaciers surrounding us. We ate lunch in Yak Kharka, a village that consisted of 1 stone home, covered in drying dung. We ate with a group of 15-year-old girls going to the mountains to collect. They said they would spend 15 days collecting and expected to find 1 Yartsa Gunbu per day. Dark clouds chased us up the valley as we hiked to Bagala base camp. I noticed the running river, brown dirt surrounding the river and green lush grass. Tan desert rocks lined the canyon. Melting ice turned into waterfalls, horses grazed and yaks moved to lower elevation. We set up camp at 4,500m (14,763 ft.) just in time for snow. The pass and glaciers sat in the clouds; we were in a snow globe.

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Day 7- We were the first trekkers of the season to hike up and over Bagala Pass 5,169 m (16,958 ft). We crossed an icy river in the morning and saw blue sheep above. I heard rocks move above us as the ice began to melt. We saw big marmots, purple flowers and huge glaciers. We hiked for 6 ½ hours, and along the ridge of a valley at the end. We didn’t need any altitude medications, however felt slow. Our heart rate and breathing increased and we felt nauseous. We slept at the base of Numala Pass.

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Day 8- Again, we were the first trekkers of the season to cross over Numala Pass 5,300 m (17,600 ft). Although higher, this pass felt easier than Bagala. We came down into a high and dry environment that reminded me of Mustang, which made sense as I could see upper Mustang behind some mountains. We could see dark storm clouds but were so high we could also see clear baby blue skies above. We walked down mossy meadow humps, saw herds of big furry yaks and followed the river to Dho Tarap. We saw ancient homes, piles of drying dung, green houses and motorbikes (which are walked 2 days from Tibet during an open 1 month trade agreement). We saw tsampa (ground barley) being ground by the power of the river. We visited a school and hiked for a total of 7 hours.

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Numla Pass 17,600 ft.

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dung pile

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Day 9- Rest day. We visited a 700-year-old Bon Monastery, Ribo Bhompa Gonpa. We watched the locals plow fields with yaks. I spent time playing with a young girl who lived at the teahouse and was fascinated how she imitated her mother. Growing up, I remember pretending to talk on a cell phone or use a credit card but this young girl was pretending to herd goats, grind chilies and carried her doll on her back wrapped in a scarf. Larry, Kaitlin, Nick and I played cards and drank local barely wine.

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Day 10- It seems like the landscape changed every 2 days. Today was dry with waterfalls, it reminded me of the Southwest, USA. Nick, Larry and Kaitlin ate blue sheep at lunch, the first time eating meat since we left Kathmandu. Every tea house/ tea house tent seemed to carry Chinese products. Rice bags, soda cans, and ramen wrappers were written in Chinese. Goat and sheep covered the hiking trail and we trekked for 7 hours. I watched a goat/ sheepherder roll wool on a hand spindle while he walked.

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Day 11- Kaitlin was sick. We were back in the forest following the river and the grassy mountains resembled Switzerland. The hills were alive with the sound of music. Dhal bhat was getting more expensive at 500 R ($5) per plate while in Kathmandu it was 100 R ($1). We saw enormous 200 ft. trees, it reminded us of Colorado. We camped at a lower elevation and the climate was hot. We slept in a meadow with purple lavender like flowers and horse skeletons. Part of the trail shimmered in the sun and the silver rock looked like glitter. We hiked for 7 hours total.

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Day 12- Today, we hiked from 6:45 am to 4 pm and gained 1,500 m (4,921 ft.) in elevation. It was a hard day and my legs felt like Jell-O-O. Wild marijuana grew everywhere, Gompa Village sat in the mountains where walnut trees grew. We met a man traveling from Upper Dolpo who had lost his 11 yaks and was on a journey to find them. We stopped by some hot springs (tatopani) and had to bush wack for an hour back to the main trail. Nick had back pain. We walked with the Nepali military sent to monitor the Yartsa Gunbu collecting which began the following day. We were happy when we made it to the top, however the last hour walk in the pouring rain was cold and frustrating. We camped at Jangla Base Camp 4,300 m (14,100 ft).

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28 dhal bhat meals (lentils & rice)

Day 13- We were surprised with Nepali sweets from Bchandra’s family (one of our porters) who was camping close by to collect. We hiked over Jangla Pass in a cloudy meadow and dreamt of food, as we were getting sick of dhal bhat. Larry made a great discovery of covering your poo with dried yak poo when no rocks could be found. Genius. We had an easy day (4 hours) and napped in the afternoon although breathing was difficult due to the elevation. We played cards in the evening.

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Day 14- We woke up to rain, then snow, and waited for an hour in hopes of better weather. Eventually, our guide said, “We must go over the pass or we may have problems.” We trekked over the snowy pass not able to see far in front of us. We came down to a tent camp, where collectors were staying. We left the canyon and were back in a lush forested environment. The landscape reminded Nick and I of Northern Vietnam. Waterfalls, Rhododendron, moss, fallen leaves. Women wore clothing that looked similar to hill tribe clothing in Southeast Asia. It began to rain as we approached Dhule. We hiked for 6 1/2 hours. We spent the evening in Dhule, which was busy with collectors and helped locals clean Yartsa Gunbu with toothbrushes. We hung out with some local kids and ended the evening with dhal bhat, mutton and tongba (warm millet beer).

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Day 15- We spent the evening under a leaky roof during a thunderstorm. We had roti (similar naan) for breakfast and were not use to the aspect of chewing, as dhal bhat does not require such strong jaw muscles. We hiked along terraced fields (corn, potatoes, squash, green onion and millet) and honeybee logs. We learned that 1 family of bees live in a log per season and our guide gets 200 kg of honey per year from 20 logs. We hiked through forest. Birds chirped, water rushed and we spent a few hours at hot springs. We hiked for 4 hours through lush forest to Kayam, a village of 2 homes. When the clouds lifted we were surprised with a breathtaking view.

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Day 16- Our guide and porters collected wild bamboo shoots for dinner and stole lettuce from gardens. We observed bridges, rain and moss. We stopped in Thakur, where the clay home with a thatched roof provided us with fresh buffalo milk. The home was dark and smoky and we ate dhal bhat for lunch. Goat and buffalo meat hung above the wood stove to dry. We hiked for 3 hours today and camped on an unprotected saddle.

Day 17- We got little sleep due to high winds and rain, and our tent repeatedly collapsed. The next morning we trekked over a small pass. There was a lot of rain and we continued to drink copious amounts of buffalo milk. At lunch I was embarrassed after my new dog friend came running up to me in the woods and ate my waste before I had time to even think.

After 5 hours of trekking, we entered the hunting reserve and the national park pass was 3x what we expected. We spent the afternoon in Dhorpotan where Larry and Kaitlin played Frisbee with kids and Nick washed laundry in the river. I pumped water and had a lovely conversation in attempted Nepali with a local about her kids, siblings and age. The town consisted of scattered huts in a valley and there was no town center. Larry, Kaitlin, Nick and I played cards and ate an abundant amount of Indian snacks we bought from a nearby store. That evening Nick and I began to feel ill.

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Day 18- Thankfully today was a rest day in Dhorpotan. Due to overconsumption, food poisoning or a change and diet, Nick and I spent the previous night and early morning projectile vomiting into our camping pot, bags and in the backyard. Hundreds of dogs barked the entire night. The next morning the dog and chickens made sure to clean up our mess. It took 4 days for our (which now included Larry’s) system to get rid of the Indian snacks.

Day 19- Today, the weather was warm and sunny. We crossed suspension bridges, water buffalo roamed the woods and Larry found a leech on him. We were trekking at a lower elevation and walked through a dead forest that was killed by a fire 20 years earlier. The clouds looked so close, I watched them expand and they moved quickly. For the first time on our trip Nick and I mentioned missing home. Maybe because it had been so long since we had talked with our families; we were worried that everything was okay.

We passed snarling Tibetan Mastiffs showing their teeth. By day these dogs were chained but at night they roamed guarding homes. We sat on animal skins and ate dhal bhat for lunch. Nick, Larry and I were still sick from the Indian snacks and beginning to have sharp pain under our rib cage. Good thing we only had a few more days of trek! We camped and the clouds looked bright in the dark sky. We listened to cow bells and jackals in the evening. 4 ½ hours of hiking.

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Day 20- We woke up to a clear view of Dhaulagiri. This mountain consists of 5 peaks and is 5 miles tall or 7,900 m (26,810 ft). The clouds moved quickly over Jaljala Pass and our view of Dhaulagiri was quickly obstructed. We trekked 4 hours downhill to a teahouse where we ate candy and explored the town.

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Dhaulagiri, 26,810 ft.

Day 21- We took an adventurous 7 hour bus to Beni where we drove past snow covered peaks on a “road” that was carved into the mountain side. We ate some local plums, which were the first fruit we’d had in almost a month. At a bus stop we ate samosas and jalebis then boarded another bus headed for Pokhara. We reflected on our remarkable trek and looked forward to bathing.

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Dhal Bhat- 28 meals

Days camping- 11

Days in tea houses- 10

Other foreigners’ spotted- 6 (an anthropologist, linguist, trekkers and a runner)

 

 

 

Varanasi

Varanasi is 1 of the world’s oldest continuously inhibited cities and 1 of Hinduisms 7 holy cities. Pilgrims come to wash away a lifetime of sins in the Ganges River and families come to cremate their deceased, liberating them from the cycle of birth and death.

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Sleeping Sadhu

Varanasi was intense and like most of India was aggressive, polluted and dirty. Military presence was high and angry bulls filled the tiny alleyways. I was pleased that it took almost 2 months before a bull rammed me, as a fear of cows would have been inconvenient. However, the culture and tradition that filled the city was unique and spiritual.

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Sari

Nick and I spent the majority of our time along the river observing the 80 plus ghats. During the day the weather was hot and there were only a handful of locals on the banks. We hung out with wandering cows and fed some paper from our guidebook to hungry goats. We watched men paint tar on boats with their bare hands as we had previously seen locals painting fences in Kolkata without brushes. We people watched then continued to the burning ghats.

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Ghat

We approached a burning ghat where we saw 20 bodies burning and 10 soaking in the river before being cremated. We could walk within 10 feet of the fires. We observed and were curious. We had many questions that were later answered by some generous locals.

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Burn mark
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Burn table
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Platform

Bodies come to Varanasi within 1-2 days of dying. They are wrapped in cloth, white for men, orange for women and red for young women. Children, pregnant women, lepers and Brahmin (priests) are not cremated as children are innocent, leopards will transfer their disease and priests are pure. Instead, a large rock is attached to their bodies and they are sunk in the river.

Untouchables, individuals in the lowest caste, wrap their bodies and carry them on decorated bamboo stretchers down busy alleyways to the ghats. The most popular ghat is Manikarnika Ghat where 200-300 people are burned per day and they work 24 hours. The deceased families, identifiable as they have shaved heads, splash water from the Ganges River on their deceased and let their body soak.

The body is placed on a prepared pile of wood and a calculated number of logs are placed on top as the cost of the cremation depends on the weight of the wood and type (sandalwood being the most expensive). Cremations cost on average $12- $71, however families who cannot afford this often place whole bodies in the Ganges. We were told that where the body is burned, closer to the river, on a platform, etc. all depends on your caste. Various spices and ghee are sprinkled over of the pile before being lit. It takes approximately 3-4 hours for a single body to burn. We watched over 15 cremations in various stages. Near the end, the worker rearranges the burning logs, ash and body with a long bamboo stick. It’s easy to identify the body being jabbed, as it’s soft and almost blubbery in comparison to the incinerating wood. The final ceremony includes breaking the burning skull with the bamboo stick, in order to let the spirit escape. After the body is fully burned, the ash is collected in a large pile on the bank. We were told that workers go through the pile searching for jewelry to keep or sell before the ash is washed into the river.

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Weighing the wood
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A burning body and body soaking

Nick and I sat and observed for hours. Myself and 1 other tourist were the only women among many men. Women are forbidden to attend Hindu funerals as they may cry, which as bodily fluid is viewed as a pollutant. We could hear the bodies burn; they didn’t crackle like the wood, but sizzled and popped. Clouds of smoke overtook the area with ash afloat.

Nick and I also explored the city and visited Vishwanath Temple. This temple was of the highest security we’ve visited and took multiple security checks and documentation our passports before we gaining entry. A local fished a lay of flowers out of a holy pool of sour milk and placed it around nicks neck. They then took a handful of the coagulated milk and mud (clay texture) and rubbed it across both Nick and my forehead. This brought good luck and smelliness to our families.

We took an evening boat ride along the river. At night, the ghats were full of Indians enjoying music music and spotting a famous Bollywood actress. On the boat, we watched the glowing flames on the banks, pilgrims bathing, children at swim practice and youth playing cricket and other games on the steps of the ghats. We lit a lotus candle and watched it drift through the river.

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Bathing in the Ganges
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Evening swim practice
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Buffalo man

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Lotus candle
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Banks of Varanasi

Varanasi was by far the most touristed placed we have visited in India, however we understood the draw. Westerners are so removed from the process of death. Between practicing yoga and meditation or contemplating death and culture, Varanasi was a though provoking place full of magical energy.

Eats:

Kashi Chat Bhandar- this busy local spot is delectable! We enjoyed the aloo tikka (potato chat), tamatar chat, pani puri and kulfi fadoola for desert.

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Chat shop

Dosa Cafe – great dosas, idly, vadas and other South Indian specialties

Keshari Restaurant – over 40 paneer curries

Blue Lassi – meh

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Lassi shop