travel

Death, life, and wandering in Kathmandu

On the drive to our first destination, Bipin shared snippets of history about Nepal. We all sat in the van, separated into our groups, and listened intently to the story of the royal massacre.

In June 2001, the heir to the Nepalese throne, Prince Dipendra, shot his family members in a drunken rage: his victims included his father, King Birendra. Ten people, including Prince Dipendra, ended up dying, though the official story, and Prince Dipendra’s involvement, is considered controversial.

Over the next few years the nation was fraught with political strife. It descended into chaos, with protests, bombings, necessary peace talks, and the eventual abolition of the monarchy. As recently as September of last year, three months before we sat in the van listening to Bipin, there were protests over the new constitution.

Additionally, beginning in September, a major fuel blockade has severely crippled Nepal. According to some sources, the blockade is India’s way of forcing Nepal to make changes to its new constitution. Others say it’s because of members of lower castes in Nepal.

No matter the cause, Nepal relies on fuel from India. Previously, around 300 fuel trucks would travel from India to Nepal each day. When we were there, 5-10 fuel trucks were making the trip. And as our group traveled from one location to another, we saw long lines of cars, trucks, and commercial vehicles waiting for gas.

Vehicles lined up to get gas. Lines choked traffic, and the vehicles were often abandoned because wait times were so long.

Vehicles lined up to get gas. Lines choked traffic, and the vehicles were often abandoned because wait times were so long.

As the road widened from claustrophobic alleys near the Kathmandu Guest House to wider, manageable streets, we alternated between looking at Bipin as he taught us and catching glimpses of Kathmandu life out the windows.

We passed a tall fence with yellow signs affixed to it. “World Heritage Site” said one. “Pashupati Area Development Trust” was on the other. I was surprised when we turned in.

(Again, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d read the Trip Notes from Intrepid once more before arriving.)

Megh parked the van, we got out, and I immediately felt like a tourist. As a group of foreigners, we were watched by locals as we slowly walked into the open area of the heritage site. Our large cameras were another giveaway, but I shook off the feeling and started taking pictures of everything I wanted to remember: the nearly dry riverbed, the piles of trash, and the small bonfires burning across the bank from us. Ahead was a complex with a temple. Bipin called us into a circle.

Pashupatinath

We were at Pashupatinath Temple, a Hindu site dedicated to the god Shiva, and the Bagmati River in front of it would eventually join the Ganges. Elderly men and women from across Nepal and India go to Pashupatinath to die, then be cremated along the river.

The small bonfires I’d noticed were cremations. At this realization, I quickly let my camera fall against my chest. Bipin had asked us earlier to respect the dead and their families and refrain from taking pictures of bodies being cremated.

Pashupatinath Temple

They were wrapped, and the only indication they were the dead was the crying family surrounding the pyre. But the sight jarred me. And the wails from grieving family members got to me.

We continued along the bank, learning more about the site. At one point, across from the main part of the temple, Bipin gave us some time to wander around and take in the area. My first thought was that I needed to just sit.

Bagmati River, Pashupati

I needed to respect what was unfolding across the river. And I needed to let my mind settle after being shocked by the cremations. The shock came from a sudden awareness of my own mortality, and from the sadness emanating from the families.

Photo thanks to Sylvie

Photo thanks to Sylvie

A while later we all congregated to learn more about the Hindu god Shiva and the significance of the small buildings around us.

Photo thanks to Chloe

Photo thanks to Tasha

Bipin gave us ample time to look around, take pictures, and ask questions.

Pashupati man birds

We headed farther up the hill, where there were benches and a good vantage point for the proceedings on the river’s banks and at the temple. We saw some tourists taking video of the cremations.

(“Hey guys! Want to see my awesome vacation video of a buncha people wailing and mourning and cremating their loved ones?” Come on, tourists. Have some respect.)

Looking down the hill toward Pashupatinath Temple

Looking down the hill toward Pashupatinath Temple complex (to the right, gold roof)

We continued up the hill. We foreigners spread out and slowly made our way up the stairs, and Bipin bounded up and down the stairs to answer questions from those farther ahead and those down below.

The Nepalese could probably give Kenyans some stiff competition in marathons.

Pashupatinath treeOver the top of the hill, after passing more religious pagodas and small temples, we met some monkeys, got a great view of more of Kathmandu, and then started down the hill toward the waiting van. Megh had driven to the other side of the site to pick us up.

MONKEY

Kathmandu

Our next destination was Boudhanath Stupa, a Buddhist site. The stupa is large and surrounded by connected, multi-storied buildings.

The facade of a building facing the stupa

The facade of a building facing the stupa

It’s being rebuilt, as the earthquakes caused quite a bit of damage, especially to the top.

Boudhanath Stupa

Near the entrance Bipin corralled us for a while to tell us about Boudhanath and its significance, then told us to meet him after we’d had a chance to walk around the stupa.

monks at boudhanath

We all circled the base, then joined Bipin at the Buddhist Thanka Centre: School of Thanka Painting. There we learned about mandalas: their history, the art of painting them, and how they relate to Buddhism.

Mandalas are stacked geometric designs that represent the universe. Boudhanath itself, from above, is a mandala. Most, if not all stupas, are built as mandalas. Traditionally, mandalas are meant to be created, either with paint or sand, with dedication and many hours (thousands, and years if you include all the training) spent in their creation.

However, the purpose of a mandala is to represent that nothing is permanent, and once it has been completed, it’s supposed to be destroyed.

It’s a metaphor for life. And the metaphor, just like the mandalas, is beautiful.

mandala

(Color photo here.)

Lunch was on the roof of the restaurant next door to the centre, and several of us enjoyed our first taste of mo mo, the Nepalese version of dumplings. This was our first chance to sit as a group and get to know each other a little better, and Sylvie and I had everyone convinced we’d been friends before the trip because our humor was so similar. During lunch we were entertained by a Buddhist prayer, punctuated by sighs and the speaker clearing his throat, recited over loudspeakers at the stupa.

I asked Bipin if I could return to the centre after lunch so I could buy a mandala. Wendy, Joel, and I went together and talked for a long time with the staff there, and Wendy and I both bought beautiful mandalas, with the proceeds going directly to the school.

men painting mandalas

The others were waiting downstairs when we finished, and we got back into the van. Our afternoon was free, and once we returned to the Kathmandu Guest House, each group went off on their own adventure.

Because of the fuel crisis, many public vehicles allow riders on the roof so more people can ride in fewer vehicles.

Because of the fuel crisis, public transportation allows riders on the roof so more people can ride.

Sylvie and I quickly agreed that we wanted to walk around the area, and we ended up threading through alleys, roads, and dead-ends as we explored.

wandering around Kathmandu

Until dusk we were lost, enjoying getting to know the area and people watching.

rickshaws

“Do we know where we are?” I asked Sylvie.

“Does it matter?” She shrugged and continued walking.

There was graffiti around the city, including this mural

There was graffiti around the city, including this mural

That was the beauty of the afternoon, and of the trip. We were safe and free to get to know Nepal on our own terms. The majority of us were comfortable travelers — respectful of the culture, willing to go outside our comfort zones, and flexible.

Approaching a building heavily damaged by the earthquake

Approaching a building heavily damaged by the earthquake

Over dinner at a restaurant next to the guest house, Sylvie and I got to know each other. I had chicken tikka masala, we shared garlic naan, and we enjoyed a hearty meal for a relatively cheap price. There were a number of other foreigners there, both male and female, some traveling solo.

We made our way back to our room just after dark. Sylvie lay down to read, and I decided to take a “quick nap” before writing in my journal. Curled under the covers and warm, I never made it back out of bed. I barely woke up again before my alarm went off around 5am.

I was joining Wendy, Nick, and Sian the next morning on a flight to see Everest, and we were leaving before the sun would come up.

Nepal: The Cast of Characters

After my shower the next morning, I felt like a new woman. Sylvie and I headed downstairs and went to the small breakfast buffet, where they served Western foods like scrambled eggs, pancakes, and small boxes of cereal. We sat alone, chatting and people watching. The room held 50 people or so, and it was about half full with foreigners dressed in various cold weather gear.

A peephole window on the landing between the fourth and fifth floors of the Kathmandu Guest House

A peephole window between the fourth and fifth floors of the Kathmandu Guest House

Before we left she walked me to different tables and introduced me to some of the others in our group: David and Andrew, two Australians who were probably in their forties, were quietly sitting at one table. Four more Australians sat near them – Wendy, Joel, Julez, and Erin were a group of friends just a bit younger than I am. Sylvie and I were anxious to get in a bit of exploring before I met with Pippin, so we bid farewell to the others and set off.

street near KGH

I walked with a bounce in my step. The sun was shining and the blue sky was a welcome sight, and the temperature was cool, but comfortable. I could feel it – a familiar, slight smile that stayed on my face throughout the morning. My face reacted to the energy I felt – adventures and a new country to explore were laid in front of me, and I felt alive. Awake. All the anxiety from the previous evening had completely dissipated.

We walked to a small, open-air bookstore and spent some time checking out maps of the Kathmandu Valley. I couldn’t buy one until I bested an ATM, but we found a good map that Sylvie bought and I planned to get later.

bookstore

Continuing on, we retried the ATM from the night before. It refused both Sylvie’s and my cards. We decided to find an actual bank and continued our slow, exploratory walk down the road.

The area of Kathmandu we were in felt completely different in the light. The roads we walked on were rough and lined with multi-storied, low-key buildings that seemed to lean into the narrow streets.

Kathmandu street

On our way back to the Kathmandu Guest House, we found a bank of four ATM machines in a narrow room up a few stairs from the road. Other foreigners were happily pulling cash, and we all chatted as we accessed our accounts and filled our wallets. I withdrew 35,000 Nepalese rupees, which came out to $335 US.

We made it to the hotel lobby with time to spare. I was looking around, trying to spot our tall blond guide, when Sylvie called out to me.

“Mandy, this is Bipin.”

I turned to see a black-haired man who was roughly my age. For a moment I was confused, and then I realized I was an idiot: our guide wasn’t some eternally backpacking Westerner with a curiously cute name from a Broadway musical. He was a local.

(I learned later that Intrepid Travel hires trained travel guides from host countries. Smart.)

He motioned to a couch by the window, and we introduced ourselves. In clear English, like the majority of the Nepalese I’d encountered by that point, he explained what I could expect on the trip. I trusted him immediately and felt a sense of kinship with someone I’d known for five minutes.

Once we’d gone over the details, he smiled and excused himself so he could get ready for the day’s excursion. Others in our group were starting to congregate in the lobby, and Sylvie helped me meet each of them. There were 13 of us in total, including Bipin.

Andrew and David, the two Australians I’d met at breakfast, largely stayed to themselves during the trip. They often wandered off and did their own thing, sometimes skipping meals with the group and eating separately. Bipin was careful to make sure they were included as often as they wanted to be, but for the most part, the remaining 10 of us spent the most time together.

Nepal travel family

Clockwise-ish starting with the standing man in the gray jacket: the manager of the Famous Farm, Sylvie (in orange), Tasha, Chloe, Sian, Nick, Joel (throwing his best Blue Steel pose), Wendy (white scarf), three Famous Farm staff members, Erin (brown pants), Julez, me, and Bipin

Sylvie, my roommate, was a Canadian who lived and worked in Morocco as a teacher. She’s a voracious reader – I think she read six books during our ten-day trip – and casually dignified, with an adventurous spirit and quick wit. I had a lot of fun rooming with her.

The four other Australians I’d met at breakfast consisted of Julez and Joel, siblings of Filipino descent; Erin, Julez’s girlfriend; and Wendy, Julez’s friend. Julez was the most Australian Australian I’ve ever met, and was chill and very comfortable in her own skin. Joel was her younger brother, a naturally bright college (“uni”) student who, despite making duckfaces in his pictures, was always ready to laugh. Erin was a happy blonde who joined the group on her first-ever visit outside of Australia, which she handled with grace. Wendy was a spunky woman with a contagious laugh whose husband, regrettably, stayed home.

The siblings (Joel and Julez) with their selfie sticks. Say what you want about selfie sticks - they came in really handy on this trip.

The siblings (Joel and Julez) with their selfie sticks. Say what you want about selfie sticks – they came in really handy on this trip.

As the group assembled, I also met two New Zealanders, a married couple named Nick and Sian.

“How do you pronounce it? Shawn?”

“No, like ‘Shan’.”

“Wait… how do you spell that?”

Nick and Sian are Intrepid Travel regulars, a very thoughtful, fun couple. He had a camera around his neck like me, and his pictures from the trip are captivating.

I don't remember what they were looking at, but I love how confused they all look.

I don’t remember what they were looking at, but I love how they’re all obviously concentrating on something very important. (Julez, Joel, Erin, Nick)

Soon two Brits, Chloe and Natasha, came into the lobby. They’re friends who act like sisters, and even in their twenties they give off a air of grace and poise. Their proper manners made it all the funnier when Tasha talked smack during games.

Once we’d all arrived, Bipin corralled us into a waiting 13-passenger van. He sat shotgun, with a wide console between him and our quiet, reliable driver, Megh.

driving

During our drives Bipin often turned around and told us stories and jokes. He’d also share the history of Nepal and our destination, sprinkling in personal anecdotes that made the country feel more like a place where people lived, and not just a place where people climbed mountains. On longer drives, when most of the foreigners were sleeping, he’d turn and check on everyone, smiling at those of us who were still awake. A surefooted guide, Bipin quickly became a good friend. He was our teacher and leader, whip-smart like Joel, a skilled photographer like Nick, and witty like Sylvie.

All eleven of us loved to laugh. With Bipin as our guide, over the course of nine days we became a family. And our family was currently loaded into a plain white van and on its way to our first destination: Pashupati.

Nepal van

And then I was in Kathmandu, Nepal

(All the photos in this post are terrible. But who wants to read a long post about travel and not see some pictures? So… sorry.)

I could feel the anxiety rising. After deplaning with a huge smile, I’d spent at least an hour trying to take care of my landing visa. When I was finally released to roam the country, I collected my ugly green suitcase, walked out of the tired airport, and saw the line of taxis. I’d already arranged for a ride to and from the airport, so I waved the taxi offers aside and looked for a driver holding a sign with my name on it.

I really, really wanted to select Pilgrimage.

Can I select Pilgrimage? Please?

I checked a second time to see if a driver had a sign with Intrepid Travel’s name on it.

Why had I been so determined to travel to this country without doing any research? I pulled out my trip notes. We were staying at a guest house in Kathmandu. That’s all I knew. No address. No phone number.

I looked around. It was dark – I couldn’t see stars or the moon, and it felt like the airport was the lone building for miles. More drivers came up to me, offering help in surprisingly good English.

Outside the Tribhuvan International Airport. To the right, taxis. To the left, drivers. Missing: my driver.

Outside the Tribhuvan International Airport. To the right, taxis. To the left, drivers. Missing: my driver.

“Intrepid Travel,” I said to one. The control in my voice was impressive, considering anxiety was coursing through my veins like cocaine. The man I was talking to, who was likely a few years younger than me, nodded.

“Wait. I’ll call your driver.”

I nearly hugged him.

Two men helped me, and 15 minutes later (it felt like longer, but anxiety makes everything feel like eternity) an old sedan pulled up.

“He didn’t think you were coming. So he left,” one of the men explained. I didn’t care. I had a way to get to wherever I was staying for the night. I climbed in the backseat on the right, behind the driver. Nepal follows the UK’s lead on driving rules.

And by that, I mean the side of the road you drive on; otherwise, the drive was similar to other Asian countries. There were scooters and bicycles skirting around slow vehicles, along with pedestrians tempting death, all in a very confined space that echoed with the cacophony of horns.

Or in the middle

Or they drove in the middle. Whatever worked.

A very dark, dusty, tight space.

It didn’t feel like I was in a major city. The dust kicked up and was visible only because of our headlights and those of approaching traffic. I watched the street life as we bounced down roads full of potholes and broken concrete. Each time the driver slowed, I expected to be dropped off at a sagging stoop, where I’d be faced with the reality of my situation.

I was in a third-world country still rebuilding after a series of earthquakes. I was going to spend nine days with people I’d never met touring part of this country. I was probably going to have a hyper-reactive colon and only holes in the ground at my disposal.

KTM street

The car took a couple slow, tight turns, then pulled into the large, walled-in complex of the Kathmandu Guest House.

Apparently it’s famous. I would’ve known that if I’d done my homework.

I was so grateful for the calm, welcoming entrance of the Guest House that I tipped the driver a $10 American bill. For the amount of relief I felt, I would’ve given him my first-born child.

The front desk had my name on their reservations list, and my relief compounded. A man who was smaller and older than me took my suitcase and led me to my room – up four flights of stairs and at the end of the hall. He hoisted my suitcase atop his head as we went up the stairs, and I apologized to him at every landing. With a smile and a laugh, he helped me to my room and left.

KGH

Rooms straight ahead, a restaurant on the left, and the lobby and higher-end rooms behind me.

My roommate had claimed one bed, so I sat on the second.

I sat the Traveler’s Sit: there was no more traveling to be done. I was where I needed to be. I was in the right place. Everything was okay.

Two 17-hour layovers, three flights, multiple subway and bus rides, and one ride in a car through Kathmandu doubting my decision to come, and I was happy. Tired, in desperate need of a shower, a little hungry, but happy.

Sylvie came back while I was Sitting. We happily, and somewhat guardedly, introduced ourselves, and she told me about the group. The longer we talked the more comfortable I felt, and I was glad to meet her. I heard her mention that I would meet our guide, Pippin, before the group got together for our first excursion together.

I imagined a peppy, wild-haired, blond Brit. Maybe an Australian. Tall and sinewy and a little off, but fun. I didn’t feel the need to ask how correct my assumption was because I knew I was right.

Sylvie offered to venture out with me in a quest to find an ATM and food, but I told her to relax and keep getting ready for bed. I let her know I would be back soon, quickly checked my reflection, snorted at it, and then I bounded down the stairs and into the chilly night with the joy of Julie Andrews singing in the Austrian hills. The doorman smiled and said namaste, and I felt like a Disney princess.

KTM street 2

–The cash-less princess. A few blocks away from the hotel I found an ATM. This machine, standing in a tiny room that was littered with hundreds of discarded receipts, snubbed me. It took a few tries for it to acknowledge my card. I started talking trash, and it finally accepted it, so I cockily punched in my PIN… only to have the machine, like a bouncer, kick me out of the transaction. My PIN was too long. I’d changed it to seven digits after my card number had been compromised, and it had never occurred to me that that could be a problem outside of the States.

GoPro 60

It didn’t matter. I planned to talk to Pippin the next morning and figure out how to get money then. When I got back to the room, I told Sylvie what happened, and we decided to head out early the next morning to eat breakfast, walk around, and get cash.

My meeting with Pippin was at 9:30, and our group was scheduled to meet at 10am. We were going to hit the ground running.

A night (and morning) in Dubai, UAE

For 40 minutes, I stood in a line 20-people deep at immigration behind a guy I assumed was an extreme sports athlete. The officer we’d lined up for was ignoring our line and was helping his neighboring officer take care of his. It was curious, but no one got annoyed. We all waited patiently for the 30-second interaction.

Nitin and I finally met at about 10pm and walked out to his car. For the next several hours he drove me all around Dubai, taking me to the mall at the base of the Burj Khalifa, then the Palm Jumeirah, the Burj Al Arab, and many places in between. I stood in awe of Dubai’s three separate skylines, walked the foyers of incredible hotels, and explored Bastakiya and the southern shore of Dubai Creek.

burj khalifa

We started at the Dubai Mall, which touts itself as the largest in the world. It reminded me of a more civilized Vegas Strip, but with all the pomp and grandeur. But on a much grander scale.

mall of dubai

Nitin lead me through the mall to the Fountain for the last show of the night. We perched on the Souk Al Bahar Bridge, the Burj Khalifa towering over us, and the Address Hotel, which recently made headlines for catching fire, at our backs.

burj khalifa

I held my GoPro up to record the show. It’s on the 24-acre Burj Lake (burj means tower) and shoots water up to 450 feet. While the Bellagio in Vegas shoots water ten feet higher, this fountain is the world’s largest, and it was beautiful. It was set to Aa Bali Habibi, and one of my favorite parts was listening to the water rocket out of the jets. It made a kind of popping sound, and I smiled the entire time.

I smiled until I realized I didn’t actually record the show. Oops.

After the show ended, we walked back through the mall, and returned to his car. Nitin explained the real estate crisis that has hindered the city: Dubai has a history of great intentions, starting incredible projects and real-estate ventures, and then abandoning them. Much of the issue is because of the influx of foreigners who buy property, or fall into debt another way, and then flee the strict courts of the UAE. In this country, you don’t just declare bankruptcy and hope for the best. If you have debt, they intend to collect.

The vast majority—around 90%—of Dubai’s population is made of foreigners, and they’re largely responsible for Dubai’s explosive growth, and then its near bankruptcy a few years ago. Of course, Dubai’s government isn’t short of blame, and has a history of financial problems.

The Burj Khalifa, for example, is named after the ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the UAE (the same man). It was originally named Burj Dubai, but after Abu Dhabi and the UAE governments lent Dubai money to pay its debts (tens of billions USD), Dubai figured it’d be a good idea to name the world’s tallest building after the man in charge.

At one point, Nitin and I stood at an overlook and took in the view of the Burj Khalifa and its surrounding skyscrapers. He asked if I wanted to pull out my tripod, which was in my suitcase in the trunk.

“Nah. I don’t want to deal with it.”

And that’s why most of my night pictures from Dubai are terrible.

Dubai skyline

The night continued on, our conversation largely about the country and its history. At 2am, after he drove me around the Palm Jumeirah, we went to a small restaurant in the Jumeirah Marina and ate a delicious Mediterranean food: foul masri, zaatar manakeesh, and falafels.

I know what we ate because I made Nitin type it out: After we sat down, I looked at the menu, but basically told him to order away. It’s a habit I have with friends I visit in foreign countries, and it’s only been dicey once, when I ended up eating a boiled chicken testicle back in 2010.

Walking back to the car, we came upon a snowman on the beach. Naturally, I had to take a picture with it.

snowman selfie

We drove past the Burj Al Arab, which seemed like it was in the middle of nowhere. I found out later that morning that it’s actually in the middle of everything, but I was so turned around that night that I was grateful for Nitin’s knowledge of the city.

A couple of hours before dawn, Nitin suddenly pulled to the side of the road.

“If we leave now, we can go to Abu Dhabi to see the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque,” he said. “We wouldn’t have much time there, but we could do it.”

I’d asked him months before if going to the Grand Mosque was a possibility. It’s the largest mosque in the country and can hold 40,000 people. Marble, gold, semi-precious stones, crystals, mother of pearl, and ceramics are the primary building materials, and after Nitin showed me pictures months ago, I really wanted to go.

We sat in his car.

“I’m awake now, but I’m worried about the drive back. What if we get tired? I mean, I could drive us back if you needed to sleep, but what if we hit traffic?”

Nitin smirked. “I don’t think there will be much traffic.” He had a point. It was about 4am.

I thought about it for a while, then made an executive decision. We stayed in Dubai. The spontaneous side of me was disappointed, and I was worried I’d regret my choice.

“I’ll just have to come back to see it,” I said, trying to make myself feel better.

We headed to Dubai Creek and Bastakiya and wandered around an older part of the city.

dubai creek

It was here, walking along the creek and watching the sky slowly lighten, that made me feel more at home in the tall city of excess.

Dubai edited-22

I saw the Al Fahidi Fort (the oldest building in Dubai).

dubai fort

Nitin led me down sleepy streets where mosques stand sentinel among blocky buildings.

Dubai edited-20

At one point we were in a tight walkway full of worshippers going to a temple nearby.

Dubai alley

Our parking expired at 8am, so we got back in the car and drove to the Burj Al Arab.

In the daylight the city looked completely different, and I could see the three skylines and where everything was in relation to one another. A city that felt like it was sprawling and disconnected was actually pretty easy to navigate.

Dubai edited-6

And there were mosques, some of them identical, as often as there are 7-Elevens in Taiwan or gas stations in a suburb in the US.

another mosque

We walked around the Souk Madinat, a nice, open-air shopping area in the shadow of the Burj Al Arab (souk means market). Nothing was open, and it was quiet, with only Nitin and me wandering around and a few workers setting up for the day. And I completely forgot to take pictures until we were in the car heading back toward the Burj Khalifa.

So I took one with my iPhone as we drove away.

burj al arab

Nitin was on the phone with his friend Amit, and we planned to pick him and his wife Abigail up and go to breakfast. We headed back to the skyline featuring the Burj Khalifa.

driving back to the city

Having never met me, Amit and Abigail had offered me a place to sleep, shower, and eat if I’d needed it during my layover. I was astonished by their hospitality. So when we stopped to pick them up, I was happy to meet them.

The conversation with Nitin never stopped throughout the night. We’re polar opposites in a number of ways, but we enjoyed talking. When Amit and Abigail climbed in the car, the conversation cranked up and we all laughed and talked nonstop. It felt like the four of us had been friends for a long time.

Three Indians and one American went to an authentic Indian breakfast food restaurant in a low-key area of Dubai. We talked photography. Amit educated me on the difference between heat and spicy. I tried pani puri and a few other dishes for the first time. It was a cheerful breakfast.

Nitin, Amit, and Abigail made me sad to leave Dubai, and happy we didn’t go to Abu Dhabi—I never would’ve met the others if we had.

The three of them had a quick discussion, and the four of us ended up going to a subway station, clean and shiny like the rest of downtown, and riding to a souk near Dubai Creek, where Nitin and I saw the sunrise. It was warm enough to wear our short-sleeved shirts, and the sun was getting stronger.

Dubai mosque detail

As I trailed the others through one alley in the souk, the vendors tried to get our attention and sell us various spices and wares. We passed one vendor with a shop on the right, and he looked at me.

“Oh, my GOD,” I heard him say. His tone was a mix of shock and disgust.

Curious, I asked the others about his reaction in the next open area.

“It’s your tattoo. And the fact that I have long hair,” Amit explained, shrugging his shoulders.

“Does that mean we’re rebellious?” I asked excitedly. He snorted. I’d actually expected a bigger negative response to my visible tattoo, but no one else seemed to care.

I needed to be at the airport two hours before my flight, so we made our way back to the subway, returned to the car, and Nitin drove us to my terminal. I realized I was disappointed my time in Dubai was over. I hugged Nitin and Abigail, and Amit walked me in to show me where to go; before he left, he gave me a bear hug, too.

I stood in line to check in and had a brief rush of emotion. A familiar feeling of anxiety, which I get before every flight, passed over me. I didn’t want to leave the comfort of where I was. I had friends here. I was comfortable here. And Nepal was a scary unknown.

The feeling passed, as it does. My gate was in a crowded area of the terminal, and I sat down. I had a few minutes to charge my phone, message my family and Nitin, and go to the restroom. The gate next to mine was full of men and women dressed all in white, and I couldn’t figure out where they were going or why they were dressed that way.

terminal

Then we got on a bus, rode it to the plane, and then climbed stairs to board. I met a woman from the UK who was going to Nepal to backpack with her husband, and saw a number of other backpackers.

The funny thing about traveling to Nepal is that you know the foreigners aren’t going for luxury. They’re dressed in hiking gear, and most of us expected to go without showers for days. I’d never been surrounded by so many low-key, adventurous people.

Once I was settled in my seat I pulled out my journal and began writing all the details of my trip so far. I planned to write every day so I didn’t forget anything, and on the flight, save for the 45 minutes I slept once the sun went down, I filled several pages. I started with my time in DC and interjected with thoughts I had during the flight.

flight path

That would be the last time I seriously wrote in my journal on the trip. Nepal proved to be too exciting, too full of conversations, hiking, coloring, impromptu soccer games, carom board, fireside chats, and games to spend time journaling.

I don’t regret it. I may not remember every detail. But it was worth it.

The joys of traveling with luggage: Washington, DC

My red-eye flight from San Diego landed at Dulles, which is miles west of Washington, DC, two hours before sunrise. I’d hoped to take a nap on the plane, but I’d managed to book a flight on the most uncomfortable plane known to man.

When I’d checked in for my flight, I learned I couldn’t check my suitcase through to Dubai. I also found out there wasn’t a place to store my bag in DC, so I was going to be stubborn and roll it around all day. Then, before I boarded, Caitlin told me it was raining.

I started my trip with no sleep, a rolling suitcase, and rain at my destination.

For $5 I took a bus from Dulles 6.3 miles to the start of the metro. There I bought a day pass for about $16, rolled my ugly green suitcase down to the platform, and waited with a growing crowd of people going to work. I was meeting Caitlin at the Metro Center station in the heart of DC, and then we’d ride up to where she was staying to drop off my suitcase and backpack. Unencumbered by luggage, we’d be ready to tackle the day.

My suitcase made me resort to Plan B in both of my layovers. And that broken, spray-painted, decade-old ripped canvas box on wheels, which has gone around the world with me more than once and never gotten lost, helped ensure my time in DC and Dubai went better than planned.

Travel is all about Plan B.

At Caitlin’s I donned my waterproof jacket, water-resistant travel purse, very non-waterproof jeans, and sponge-like running shoes, and then we were off for a full day of DC tourism.

We ate a surprisingly filling breakfast at Busboys and Poets, where I had a Thin Mint Latte (organic mint syrup, chocolate, steamed milk, espresso). I hoped the caffeine would keep me from falling asleep on the metro. And while I’m not a coffee drinker, I drank it happily: syrupy, chocolatey, milky coffee is delicious.

After breakfast we took the metro down to DC proper. Outside of downtown, DC’s full of bright, large graffiti, especially along the metro tracks. Outside of sterile, stuffy downtown, DC has a pretty cool personality.

We emerged from the metro station and re-entered the cold and wet. A ten-minute walk later and we were at the Newseum. This is a museum all about the news, and it has exhibits on some of the biggest news stories in recent memory. It also highlights the dangers facing journalists and photojournalists around the world.

Caitlin had been before, and we didn’t have much time, so she laid out our quick morning visit. We started in the Pulitzer Prize exhibit, which showcased photographs dating all the way back to 1942. I was familiar with many of them, and as we rounded the curved walls of the exhibit and looked at the photos, we alternately pointed at ones we recognized and others that caught our attention.

Newseum quote

There was one photo, for me, that was particularly chilling. It was taken during the Thammasat University Massacre, and I found it horrifying.

We left the exhibit in the midst of a crowd of schoolchildren. They were being remarkably respectful given the nature of some of the photos, but Cait and I were ready to escape the images.

Next we visited a section of the Berlin Wall—the largest outside of Germany—accompanied by a watch tower. On the free side was colorful graffiti; on the other, with the watch tower, a plain, intimidating concrete barrier.

Berlin Wall Newseum

Up two flights of stairs and we were standing in the shadow of a mangled radio tower from one of the felled World Trade Center towers from New York City. One wall was lined with front pages from newspapers around the world after the attacks.

9/11 exhibit Newseum

After several minutes I needed another break, and Cait was emotionally tapped, too. We took our time circling the museum on our way to the last exhibit we wanted to see. A large, stylized world map covered a wall and showed how much freedom the press had in other countries. Accompanying it were glass cases with artifacts from journalists and photojournalists who disappeared or died while on assignment.

From there we walked into an empty, bright room, tall and lit with natural light. Straight ahead was a wall lined with long slats holding row after row of photos. Each photo was of a man or woman who died while reporting the news. At the top were several empty rows waiting to be filled with more photos.

deaths Newseum

To the left of the photos was a wall of large plaques engraved with the names of people in the photos, plus others. This wall, too, had space for additional names. Both were regularly updated. Tim Hetherington, a brilliant photojournalist I met in 2009 at a screening of Restrepo, was memorialized in this room. There were others I recognized, too.

I was done. Caitlin seemed to be, too. We decided to head downstairs and make our way down the street to a great Indian fast food place that was cheap and warm.

After lunch it was time to brave the rain and walk along the Mall. When we found ourselves in the center of the Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, I surveyed the area.

“Huh.”

“Is it how you pictured it?” Caitlin asked.

“No. It’s… small? I thought it would be more impressive.”

Washington Monument

We approached the Washington Monument, which felt like it was plopped in the middle of an intersection.

Washington Monument tree

It was when we were close—at the base of the monument—that I began to feel more inspired by the Mall.

Washington Monument flag

We could see the Reflecting Pool, a memorial I didn’t know, and the Lincoln Memorial at the far end. The park rangers stationed at the Monument convinced us to get free tickets to go to the top at 4pm. We had two hours to explore before going up.

Washington Monument big

The memorial we saw that I didn’t recognize was the National WWII Memorial, and we walked toward it from the Monument.

National WWII Memorial selfie

It’s beautiful, even when it’s gloomy and raining.

National WWII Memorial

The Reflecting Pool behind it was long and green, littered with coins. I stuck my GoPro into the water to try to get an interesting shot of either the coins or the passing ducks. Not only were the pictures mediocre, DC security must’ve thought I was a massive idiot.

Reflecting Pool coins

When you walk up to the Lincoln Memorial, you start to realize its size. As you get closer, you expect it to get larger, but it’s only once you’re at the end of the Pool and at the base of the steps that you really see it. It looks like it’s right against the Pool, but it’s not. You still have a number of steps and wide landings to summit.

Lincoln Memorial outside

It’s big. And in the rain, the ground mirrors the Memorial and its surroundings, though it’s not slick. Then, once you step between the columns and under the roof, President Lincoln is also large, but dwarfed by the cavernous room where he sits.

Lincoln Memorial inside

By this point Cait and I were wet from the waist down, our shoes soaked. We stood under the overhang, looking out toward the Monument. There were so many sights we hadn’t seen, and I definitely wanted to see the White House before I left. But I needed time to dry my jeans and change shoes before checking in for my flight to Dubai.

Lincoln Memorial MLK

Setting back out in the rain, we decided to skip going to the top of the Washington Monument. We visited the Vietnam Memorial, a solemn, quiet place—save for the loud Chinese tour guide behind us.

Vietnam Memorial

Then we trudged another mile to the White House. It was when we stood in front of the White House that the rain began to let up. In fact, as we walked around to the other side of the House, the rain stopped.

Just in time for us to finish touring the city and get back on the metro.

White House

This picture is an anal-retentive person’s nightmare. The fountain silhouettes beautifully in the embellished part of the gate on the right. No one was standing in my way. It would’ve made a much better picture. But I didn’t care. And I rather like this off-kilter version.

DC was a great time, even with rain, no sleep, and sore feet. It had been a long, tiring day, and after drying up and taking a ten-minute power nap at Caitlin’s, I was en route to the airport.

Gratefully, on my flight to Dubai, I sat next to a cool girl from Toronto. She and I both slept almost the entirety of the flight, and apparently I didn’t wake her up the two times I kicked her in my sleep. I woke myself up with my leg spasms. It’s a miracle she didn’t feel anything.

The next time I was on land, 13 hours later, it was on the other side of the planet in the United Arab Emirates. It was 8pm, 12 hours later than San Diego, and I was going to stay up all night seeing the city with my friend Nitin.

Scotland. Yes, it was awesome.

Going to Scotland at the end of winter meant the landscapes looked less like the postcards and screensavers everyone’s seen. The colors of the land, and the sky at times, were muted, but the clear sky and water were brilliant. Rainclouds were dollops of whipped cream over water and quieting gray blankets over land.

Scotland has a rawness to it that’s incredibly appealing. Our whirlwind trip didn’t allow us enough time to sit back and get to know the country as well as we wanted to, but the bit we saw was [adjective]. Just… everything.

Caitlin and I visited Edinburgh, Inverness, Portree, the Isle of Skye, and Glasgow, and between us we took nearly 2,000 pictures over the course of five days. Here are 75.

The waves and peaks of San Diego

San Diego is a dry, brown city shoved in the bottom left corner of the United States. It might as well be TijuanDiego.

But hey – at least it’s California!

This just in: I used to be an idiot when it came to anything San Diego. In my defense, it was a former boss’s fault; he told me that the city used to be a desert until all the foliage was brought in, which led me to believe the city was the ugly stepsister to San Francisco. Flat. Dusty. Front lawns full of rocks and sand. Pancake beaches reminiscent of Florida’s coastline.

Even though I fell in love with California when I visited San Francisco, San Jose, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, and Ventura, I just never felt the urge to visit San Diego.

Then my friend Jennifer told me to come visit her. In desperate need of a weekend outside Texas’s border, I booked a cheap flight and found myself on southern California soil late on a Thursday night. I was excited to be there and catch up, but was pretty apathetic about seeing the area.

Jenn picked me up around 11pm. My 48-pound checked bag with 30 bottles of Texas craft beer inside survived the jostling of the trip, and we excitedly chatted as we drove north to her apartment. I saw the beautiful skyline lit against the dark night, and then noticed the city’s lights dotting the scene outside my window.

“Hills! Wait! There are hills?”

Not only is San Diego very much not flat, it’s also lush and beautiful. It’s not brown. Even on the beach (well, one beach), where the sand is brown, there’s mica that makes the beach shimmer as though it’s covered in gold glitter. San Diego isn’t shoved anywhere, and it doesn’t seem like the conjoined twin to Tijuana, Mexico. Just like the pilot said as we were landing, San Diego County is paradise.

(If you want to read the captions or see the photos in their enlarged glory, click.)

Taiwan photos: Find the light

Sometimes I just take pictures; I don’t stretch myself creatively. After a few years of shooting, it’s instinct to keep the horizon level, watch the rule of thirds, or to focus on balance. It’s generally easy to focus correctly or take a picture most people will find visually appealing. My pictures aren’t the best, but they’re above average.

When Sabrina and I left for Taiwan, I decided that my goal with my photos on the trip was to find the light. I’ve been fascinated recently by paintings and photography that really captures the light in a beautiful way. A piece that glows, like Ivan Aivazovsky’s The Ninth Wave, just captures me.

So I tried to capture the light. I didn’t necessarily succeed with all these shots, but I’m a fan of how they turned out, and these are some of my favorite pictures from the trip. All are straight out of the camera.

One:

light

Two:

light

Three:

light

Four:

light

Five:

light

Six:

light

Seven:

light

Eight:

light

Nine:

light

Ten:

light

light

Eleven:

light

Twelve:

light

Thirteen:

light

Fourteen:

light

Fifteen:

light

Sixteen:

light

Seventeen:

light

Eighteen:

light

Nineteen:

light

Taiwan photos: 91-97

One:

empty

Our terminal in Beijing was large and empty, so we basically did whatever we wanted.

Two:

yoga

Sabrina doing an airplane-like yoga pose in front of an arriving Air China flight, which just happened to be the same carrier we used? It’s like we planned it! (But we didn’t.)

Three:

chairs

We had fun, playing music and goofing off, but outside it was bleak and dirty.

Four:

ceiling

We had a boring American lunch at a restaurant in the middle of the terminal. Better boring than to have stomach issues on a 15-hour flight, right?

Five:

room

Looking down from the same position, you can see our yoga/meditation room from the night before (on the right).

Six:

landed

On the flight to Beijing from Taipei, we listened to music and danced to American big band music in our seats – so much so that one of the flight attendants giggled and started dancing, too, as she passed by. On the flight from Beijing to Houston, we watched movies, and I slept as much as possible.

Seven:

watch

In a fitting end, my watch band bit the dust on our last flight.

Taiwan photos: 81-90

One:

eyes

For our last dinner with the kids and their families, we went to a fantastic Japanese restaurant. I gave the kids my camera, and one of them took this picture of Sabrina and me.

Two:

bell

The ceiling inside the City God Temple in Hsinchu

Three:

colors

Ceiling and door in the City God Temple

Four:

tea

We went to a seafood restaurant and ordered fruit tea, which was delicious. In the teapot: pineapple, apple, sweet tomato, and guava, among other fruits.

Five:

plant

A plant in the windowsill of the Hakka tea shop

Six:

man

Prayer and chanting at Longshan Temple in Taipei.

Seven:

camera

Sabrina mentioned she wanted a dSLR, so I gave her mine to play with. What better place to play with a camera than a temple?

Eight:

jungle

For brunch on the day we left, we went to Dizzy Jungle in Nanliao with Hannah. It was the perfect farewell.

Nine:

movie

Our layover in Beijing was 17 hours, and started with the most ridiculous, longest wait in security. Finally, we were set loose in the airport and found a yoga and meditation room, where we stretched, lay on the mats, and watched Pitch Perfect on my laptop.

Ten:

 

airport

After the yoga room, we found reclined chairs in individually-encased little stalls that faced the night. We set up shop and slept a few hours until dawn.