Categories
India

Ups and Downs in Northern India

Experiencing India for the first time via Delhi was a mix of intense emotions. Immediately upon arrival we were submerged into a pace and way of life that was far beyond what wild images we had concocted when reading and listening to stories about India. People oozed from every corner, moving with the ease of jelly fish floating through calm waters, while outsiders haphazardly bashed against endless shoulders and hips, trying to find an inch of room to move forward. After finding the prepaid taxi stand outside of the airport, we climbed into a slick yet rattling black and white tuk-tuk and forged our way through traffic on the three-wheeled open air taxi. We arrived in Pahar Ganj, where we would sleep in a reasonably priced hotel, just as the sun was setting and had already seen more traffic, heard more honking, and smelled more foulness in 5 minutes than you would in a New York hour.

Using this neighborhood as our base, we set out to see the sights of Delhi. After battling the initial shock of having to avoid human feces and urine covering the streets and sidewalks, we reached the impressive Red Fort. The Mughal emperors lived in this palace in the 17th century and the grandiosity of the structure paired with its jarringly burnt red facade certainly seemed fit for a ruling empire.

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Deeper into the streets of Old Delhi we found alleyway after alleyway of categorically divided markets. Each market held its own tunnel of stalls and stores that were covered from above by a ragtag of scarves and tarps that added to the intrigue of the space. Walking through the garment market, pinks and yellows and blues and greens of all shades glistened with embroidered mirrors and beads and sparkling threads. Men sat cross-legged on top of their fabrics, with the most ornate and in-fashion saaris hung from above creating the entrance and walls to their shops. In the very next alley was the gold market where brilliantly yellow gold shone from every window. Intricately worked earrings, necklaces, bracelets, and anklets lay on red velvet begging to be tried on by the throngs that passed. After taking in all the eye candy, our senses turned to the scent of cardamom wafting from the alleyside food stalls. We followed our noses (and the largest crowd) to an enormous sunken cast iron skillet and ordered the same dish that all the locals were eating – puri chole. I stood back from the heat of the cooking oil as it nearly bubbled over and puffed each round dough ball into an airy pocket of fried dough, completing the “puri” portion of the dish. The “chole”, or chickpea stew, was then added to the plate and we dove into conversation with our neighbor while we scooped puri chole into our mouths by the handful.

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After several more days of sight seeing and becoming street wise to the myriad of scams and overpriced services that became a constant drum of background noise, we hopped a sleeper train to Agra. The trains, especially in the cheaper compartments like sleeper, bring you scenes as if from a dream. The basic worn benches stacked two high are filled with as many people as space could possibly allow and even more people climb from bunk to bunk across the aisles above you. Booming nasally voices call “chai” holding the “i” for several beats so you always know when the men with their silver canisters and whisper thin plastic cups are about to arrive with authentic spicy milk chai tea for 10 cents a cup. Spiritual women pass through offering blessings and tika, a fine colored paste worn on the forehead, to those interested and willing to pay. Various fix-it men peruse the aisles for a broken zipper here or torn bag there, clinking with the weight of their utilitarian remedies swinging at their sides. Children sneak under legs to swipe clean the floors in hopes for a small tip, and people afflicted with polio silently ask for charity with outstretched palms and withered limbs. Food and drink trays are periodically paraded through and at every station stop locally cooked foods are sold through the trains’ barred windows. Emerging from such a train ride, we felt we had a slightly stronger grasp on Indian culture and the nation’s collective conscious.

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We then stepped into Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Rising before the crack of dawn, we walked through the sleeping streets to see the Taj Mahal at sunrise. Pictures nor words can do it justice.

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It was erected by Emperor Shah Jahan for his wife Mumtaz Mahal who died giving birth to their 14th child, and was meant as a testimony of his love for her. Built over 21 years, from 1632 to 1653, the compound consists of four grand arching entrances, a mosque, several guest houses, sprawling gardens, and the mausoleum itself. The Mughal architecture is accented with precious stones expertly selected and inlaid to form intricate geometrical and floral motifs on the exterior of all the structures. The archways are also punctuated with artistically applied passages from the Qur’an. Walking the manicured lawns along the reflecting pools leading to the Taj Mahal put us in awe of the stunningly beautiful structure. It was the most gorgeous building I have ever seen, its beauty ethereal and intangible except for in its presence. Needless to say, that did not keep us from taking heaps of photographs!

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Agra makes every effort to ensure its guests are able to enjoy the beauty of the Taj Mahal from as many viewpoints as possible. Thanks to this, we ate all of our meals on rooftop restaurants with birds-eye views of the Taj Mahal. This also allowed for great people and animal watching. We cheered on a neighborhood cricket game from one rooftop, saw hectic tuk-tuk haggling from another, and watched water buffalo troop home from another. Once we were back on street level, I even briefly shepherded a herd of water buffalo down the street before jumping aside to pacify huffing threats of being stuck with a horn. Since the human population is much less dense in Agra compared to other major cities in India, the domestic and wild animals have a lot more room to roam. In noticing this, we took pause to appreciate the going-ons of our furry friends. Pigs walked the streets freely and even had their own expansive rubbish garden where they entertained the occasional dog or water buffalo. Monkeys strutted store to store, donkeys stood painted and waiting for their owners, goats rested in the shade, parrots flitted across buildings, and cows lazed about the streets.

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DSC_1140donkeysOur next train journey brought us to Varanasi. Unfortunately, I got very sick and was admitted to the hospital with Dengue Fever. I had been part of a Dengue Fever epidemic in Delhi, but since you don’t feel any symptoms for about one week after being bitten by an infected mosquito, we did not know I had Dengue until Varanasi. The nine days I spent in bed with Dengue Fever were some of the longest of my life; but thanks to the love, care, and diligence of those around me (and those made near by phone calls and e-mails!), I recovered just fine! After a much pampered recovery stay in the finest hotel in Varanasi, I regained my strength and was able to start exploring the city that Mark Twain said is, “older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together”.

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Venturing out from our new, budget hotel in the old city, we walked each day through the maze of back streets and watched as men hammered hunks of coal which they would later use to fuel their cooking fires. Out on the main streets, people put the coals inside their metal irons and charged a small fee to iron clothes under a sheet of shade on the side of the road. Others sat on top of small palettes lifted on four wooden wheels and sold cartfulls of bananas or garlic or tomatoes which surrounded them in a field of produce. Young men twirled ten foot tall poles decorated with hundreds of wind-powered toys for sale. Bangle shops glinted in the sunlight, luring me inside to ogle after the endless rows of glittered bracelets in varying colors and gem sizes. Lassi shops selling sour yogurt flavored with fresh fruit, crushed by mortar and pestle, and topped with saffron, rosewater, and sliced pistachios kept us fueled. And up on the flat rooftops, children held kite wars battling to catch the biggest surge of wind and catapult their kite to the highest clouds in the sky.

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The city has an extremely rich history, and Hindus consider it one of the holiest places in the world.The god Shiva is thought to have founded the city and people began populating the banks along the Ganges river in the 11th century BC, making it one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. The Ganges, the longest and most sacred river in India which runs the length of the Varanasi, is said to take away one’s impurities, accepting and forgiving all people that come to her waters. Due to this deeply imbedded religious belief, people use the Ganges for a myriad of daily activities. Wandering the ghats (stone slab steps) of the Ganges, we saw people bathing, washing clothes, cooling off their water buffalo, and even drinking the water. Millions of Hindus from other parts of India and the world make the pilgrimage to Varanasi because of this belief that the Ganges washes away one’s sins. It is also believed that if in death, you are cremated on the ghats of the Ganges and placed in the river, you will reach Moksha and be released from the cycle of reincarnation. This sense of peace and beauty in death can be felt throughout the city. Every few hours we would hear the raucous rhythmic shouting which preceded funeral processions, and just moments after hearing the procession, we would see the colorfully silk-draped body of the deceased hoisted above the crowd on its path down to Mother Ganga and Moksha.

pic flowersIntrigued by the power and respect given to the Ganges, Lee and I took a boat out on the water. Looking back to the city from our rowboat, temples and statues and god-painted water towers competed for our attention. Dusk approached and we went further downstream to the burning ghats where cremations take place. Three fires burned on three different tiers of steps, each tier correlating with the caste of the deceased. Cremations take place 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and the resulting soot paints the surrounding buildings jet black. We sat silently in our rowboat, listening to our local guide explain their tradition of cremation while 10 feet away bodies were being burned in front of our eyes, and more were lining up, being immersed in the Ganges, and waiting their time to turn to ashes. It was solemn and heavy, and yet you knew this was truly what the people wanted, their ultimate freedom and release. Paddling backwards, we left the burning ghat and made our way up the river to one of the larger worshiping ghats. Just as we arrived, the nightly ceremony for Mother Ganga was beginning. The elaborate ritual consists of Brahmin working in tandem as they swirl incense, fire, and bundled hair to the sounds of traditional music and crowd-generated ringing bells. Amongst the music and intense spirituality, we lit our own aarti offerings of a small purified butter candle surrounded by brilliant marigolds in a waxed leaf bowl, and released them into the Ganges – watching them float through the black water and join the thousands of other lights of reverence on the sacred river.

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Categories
Nepal

Celebrating On Top of the World

Volunteering on an organic herbal medicine farm brought us to the small village of Nagarkot, an hour and a half east of Kathmandu. There, we lived with a Nepalese brother and sister who opened up their land, kitchen, and home to us. All the hills in the region are terraced, with hundreds of shelves of rice and vegetables, each about 4 feet above the last. We camped in our tent on the highest terrace of our hosts’ land, and each morning woke to a stunning view of the Lang Tang Himalayan Mountain Range in the distance.
While on the farm, we carved into the Himalayas to build a set of steps connecting several terraces, built a fire pit to keep warm and enjoy company at night, and ate lots and lots of dal bhat (rice with lentils). Dal bhat is a staple in the Nepalese diet, they often it eat three times a day and enjoy sharing the popular saying, “Dal Bhat Power 24 Hour”.

I also celebrated my birthday on the farm in what was one of the simplest and most dreamy birthdays I have had yet. In addition to waking up to a crystal clear mountain view, which was slightly thereafter consumed by the day’s clouds, I carried cinder blocks up the newly formed stairs to the building site of another cottage, and sandpapered and painted the frame of a building. When the work was complete, Lee, Richard (the other farm volunteer, who graduated from LSU of all places!), and I hiked through the clouds to the city in search of birthday cake. We didn’t find any cake, but bought a box of moon pies, had some tea, and walked back down the winding dirt paths to the farm. On our way we past many a water buffalo, goat, chicken, and duck – people do not generally tie up or fence in their animals, so they are free to roam. Nepalis don’t make too much of a fuss over birthdays (though the younger generations are starting to), so we had the standard dal bhat for supper and our hosts went to bed. Lee then busted out the 6-pack of moon pies, Tuborg beer we bought in town, and the local sour Chang beer we bought at the neighbor’s house for 30 cents to fill up our liter bottle (you always bring your own container for the Chang seller to fill up with the liquid from fermented rice or wheat known as Chang). Lee then placed the only light in town, the candle that lit our small dinner table, on top of the box of moon pies declaring it a full birthday cake and he and Richard sang me a boisterous Happy Birthday! After making a wish and blowing out the candle, we stumbled around for a few minutes in the dark trying to find a dry match to re-light the candle and then dug into our moon pie birthday cakes. It was a day to remember!

Categories
Nepal

Namaste

:I greet the divine inside of you. This pervasive and heart felt saying is a constant reminder of the kind and generous spirit of the Nepalese people. They are all smiles and open hearts as they welcome you with reverence, hands pressed skyward and a warm “Namaste”.

Kathmandu was clustered, dusty, dirty, and perfectly majestic. It is like no other place I have ever been. The streets are a mix between dirt roads and thinly paved cement; with ditches, trash, piles of rocks, and running sewage lining them on either side. There is little to no order in the traffic so motorbikes, mini buses, cars and people all vie for the same space. Crossing the road is like frogger come to life, with the added benefit of constant honking, smog, and the major unpredictability of those around you driving heavy machinery.


Walking through Thamel, the main tourist district of Kathmandu, was sensory overload our first day as the in your face hyper-consumerism took hold while we tried to avoid being hit by drivers and still see all the sights. Men and women offer you everything from handmade wool sweaters to brass “singing bowls” to tiger balm and trekking adventures. But amidst all of the chaos is a beauty and harmony that is unparalleled. Hindus and Buddhists live side by side, melding lifestyles, religions, and even temples into a seamless open and happy community.

After adjusting to the altitude, Lee and I went on a walking tour of the temples in and around the Thamel district and were awed by the sheer number and density of them. While some were 50 feet high, others stood just 12 inches tall but were adorned just as heavily nonetheless. Marigolds dripped from many of the carvings and popped out against the dark wood and stone as the peoples’ daily offerings to the gods. We had to keep our eyes peeled because the most unassuming pathway or crossing would contain yet another temple. One shrine we found was to the Tooth God, and people would attach coin money to the gnarled old wooden carving in hopes of getting rid of a bad toothache. All of the dentists were also located in this area for good luck.

For several hours we discovered temple after temple and explored many of the tiny alleyways and courtyards of Kathmandu. At about 5:00pm, we saw a swarm of people and were swallowed up by the crowd moving closer and closer to a band just ahead with a dancing dragon. We had arrived during festival time and followed the parade further down to the main Durbar Square where the whole of the city was standing on and around Maju Deval’s triple-roofed temple and the surrounding temples. After people watching and getting a glimpse of statues that are only revealed 1-2 days a year, we headed back to the relative “calm” of the Thamel streets. There, pig heads sat decapitated with defiant mohawks, rickshaws skipped down the road with their painted backs and embroidered cloth windows flapping in the wind, and table after table lie chockful of mini gods and bronze bracelets and hemp.

For several days we took in the sights and sounds of Kathmandu and were sure to test out all of the new cuisine. The momos, which are little fried or steamed dumplings with your choice of vegetable, chicken, or water buffalo filling, were my favorite by far! We also tried many noodle, soup, and dal bhat (rice with lentils) dishes. Thanks to a dear friend, Maureen, from home, we were also able to connect with a Nepalese friend of hers and enjoyed an excellent lunch of home grown vegetables and fruit in our local friend’s home. Many thanks for sharing your garden, food and culture with us Tara and BP!

At night, we climbed to the top terrace of our hostel and we could see all of Kathmandu surrounding us. Since power is occasionally cut to portions of the city for “load sharing”, we could see whole areas go black at the flip of a switch. Most of the city closed by 10pm, but glowing in the distance like a magical apparition sat Swayambhunath – The Monkey Temple – which emanated a golden light through the smog and fog. It stood so magnificently high atop a hill in the distance that it felt as though we were staring at a Disney movie set. The very next day we set out to see Swayambhunath up close and were just as taken by its presence. The 365 stairs you must climb to get to the actual temple are all lined with monkeys frolicking and playing amongst smaller statues and stupas. They pick through the offerings of marigolds and rice, eating their choice of the goods, and asking for hand outs when a promising looking friend comes by. The area around the temple is more forested than the rest of the city, so we were able to sit and watch the monkeys run about a small field and swing through the trees, playing and getting in trouble just like children. Once we reached the top of Swayambhunath, the large white domed stupa with Buddha’s eyes etched over gold stood knowingly overlooking Kathmandu valley. The eyes are painted on all four sides of the gold top and represent wisdom and compassion, while the dome beneath represents the whole world. Prayer flags flapped in the wind from the precipice of the stupa and a red skirt floated just above the eyes bringing movement and life to the statue. We took a full clockwise walk around the entire stupa, and spun every prayer wheel. We then sat and watched the life and rituals as people came to one of Nepal’s oldest and most sacred sites. As night fell, candle lighting began and the monkeys starting chasing each other to all ends of the temple with loud screeches and warnings. An elderly man began to clean the small circular dishes beneath each of the prayer wheels where people had left candle offerings earlier in the day and after several minutes spent shining an individual dish, the bronze was glowing and ready for another day. We took our cue to head home and floated down the steps in total darkness to the sound of the holy monkeys.


Categories
Greece

Athena’s Battleground

Slipping back into city life after the farm was a bit of a jolt! We resumed our hostel sleeping in a colorful, noisy section of Athens just two blocks from the meat and fish markets. The markets themselves had even more hustle & bustle than the city streets. Hordes of people calling out advertisements and orders, butchers chopping wildly and running through the crowds with their bloodied aprons, with all types of meat and sea life hanging from above. We skipped ordering the fresh/raw meat, and headed out instead for more souvlaki.

From the main square of Monastiraki we could see The Acropolis jutting self-assuredly at the top of the city’s hill. Additional ancient ruins stood frozen in time beneath The Acropolis and as we passed each one on our way to see the main attraction, we became more excited.

The remaining structures at The Acropolis are a sight to behold, and although standing on The Acropolis felt different than I had imagined (perhaps due to the very large crowds making the site itself seem smaller), it was incredible to see the structures that our first democratic society lived amongst and built ideals upon.

We also went to The Museum of The Acropolis, which housed many of the sculptures from The Parthenon and had several informative short films. It was so neat to be able to place some of the sculptures in my mind’s eye where they had been missing earlier in the day, and of course seeing all of the detailed carving work was incredible.

By great chance, Max from the farm was in Athens with his girlfriend, so each night we met up, swapped stories of the day, and reminisced over farm and home life. We drank Greek wine, listened to live traditional music, saw traditional Greek dancing, and dined rooftop with views to The Acropolis bathing in soft yellow spotlights and the glow of a full moon.

Categories
Greece

The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of Sheep Bells

We arrived in Athens and immediately took a bus to the Pelopponese region, 4 hours outside of Athens on the western coast of Greece.

On this peninsula, in a small village called Krestena, we spent 10 days living and working on an organic farm. Constantinos (or Costas for short) was our host, farmer, friend, and introduction to all things Greek. We found the opportunity through workaway.info, which connects willing workers with jobs around the globe. The basic concept: you put in an honest hard day’s work, and in exchange you are provided a place to sleep and 3 meals a day free of charge. Well, both parties sure did hold up their end of the bargain!

We were welcomed to Krestena with a hearty meal of souvlaki (grilled pork with tomatoes, french fries, onions, and tzatziki all wrapped in a cone of pita bread) and two beers. Once we had satisfied our stomachs, we drove out to the farm and got the first glimpse of where we would be spending much of our time over the days to come. While the farm was still in its beginning stages, the land itself was beautiful. Rolling hills marked strategically with rows of 200 year old olive trees, with their shimmering silver leaves, covered the area. Come November, all 1,000 of the farmers’ trees will be harvested and processed to make olive oil. Since we were there a few weeks before olive harvesting season though, we were put to work caring for the land and animals at the farm.

We were responsible for putting the dogs, cats, chickens, and sheep up at night and letting them out in the morning- making sure the same number of each was alive and well each day. We lost a baby chicken to ill health, but thankfully the other 4 survived just fine and got bigger & stronger every day. We also fed all the animals, cleaned their areas, and provided them fresh water and snacks each day. I suppose it is no surprise we all became fast friends!

Max, a German studying philosophy, also worked on the farm with us and had the work ethic of (you guessed it) a German! Lee, Max, and I stayed busy clearing the land on the farm, cutting down overgrowth along the fences, collecting and moving lumber, and pulling nails. And that was just Day 1! Our big project was to build a new stable for the sheep, on our own. And for those of you out there, who like me, have never been involved in this type of work, let me elaborate lest we envision a magic wand whipping up a new home for our dear sheep overnight:

First, we surveyed the land and selected what we considered to be the most ideal spot for a new stable (flat, not too sunny, not too close to the olive trees, easily guarded against northerly winds, large enough for the stable and a yard area); Costas the farmer agreed on our selected land plot and so the planning and building began. We ensured the enclosure was large enough by measuring the previous stable and confirming that not many more than 15 sheep would live in it at one time (the herds current size). Then, we measured and marked the land (cutting down olive branch limbs where necessary) for a 12 foot by 24 foot stable. Since supplies and budget were limited, we went to another plot of the farmer’s land and chainsawed down 8 cypress trees from the forest. We then cleaned the lumber with a machete to get all the smaller branches off (my specialty), and cut them to size to be the framing posts. Next, we dug 12 two-feet deep holes. This took up an entire day’s work and physically defined “back-breaking work” in my mind. The following day, we tamped and set the poles. Another sweaty, meal-earning 5 hours. All the while, we were sure to measure for accuracy and levelness. We screwed and nailed in the stable walls, built separate quarters for the ewe and lamb with timber and cane weaving (another specialty of mine), and double checked that the angle of the roof slope was steep enough to direct all rain water to fall behind the stable. Of course, we also had to carve our names into the stable post. Lee was the leader, architect, head constructioner, pace setter and chief inspector. The stable still had a little ways to go when it came time for us to depart for Athens, but we were immensely proud of how far we brought the farmer’s dream and knew it would be finished with the perfect touch.

We even got to see the sheep seemingly curious and happy about their new home as they inched closer and closer to our work. Nibbling olives out of the low hanging branches, and clinking & rattling the bells around their necks creating a beautiful, harmonious sound that filled the hills and insisted you take a moment to appreciate your surroundings. During these quieter moments, we took pause to harvest oranges from the blessedly early-blooming orange tree at the top of the farm. We also harvested wild blackberries and walnuts, and collected the chicken eggs each morning.

With the farmer, we planted hazelnut trees and relocated stacks of hay with covered protection to keep the sheep from overeating. One afternoon as the farmer clinked corn into a metal feeding trough and the sheep all circled round, we watched as he eyed the sheep, pulling on their legs, and lifted one to check its weight. Before it completely sunk in that a sheep was being selected for supper, the animal had been tied to a pole and was hanging upside down as Lee and the farmer took it away from the herd to be slaughtered. I quickly made myself busy to miss the butcher’s knifing at the top if the hill, but arrived in time to see the fast, neat, and diligent moves of the butcher as he cleaned and gutted the sheep. At 8 euro for each butchering, the skill and precision of a man who completes his life’s work 15 times in a day, every day, was evident.

Since we usually spent just the morning hours working, we had the afternoons to explore the region and indulge in the Greek way of life.

Each afternoon, we feasted on traditional Greek dishes with Costa and his good friends, the town priest (“The Papas”), his wife, and three children. We ate Greek salad with the most delicious feta, garden grown tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions, with farm grown olives and hand pressed olive oil. We also ate lamb and pork dishes, potatoes, fried minnows, and greens. Each meal was an imperative occasion to stuff yourself as much as possible (think post-Thanksgiving coma), and we were encouraged throughout the meal to “eat, eat, eat”, for surely to be satisfied you had to consume at least 4 platefuls! Lee was a champ and dutifully met their expectations, I on the other hand had to reassure everyone that I truly loved the food, but had a small stomach and could not eat more than two helpings.

 

Since Costa and the Papadias (priest’s wife) were always cooking up such a delicious storm, we decided to return the favor and cooked Lee’s grandmother’s famous chicken & dumplings, along with green bean casserole and blackberry cobbler for dessert. We hoped this soul food would show some of our appreciation for all of their generosity and kindness, and think the adults were very well satisfied when they told us the meal was “number one!” (the children were not very impressed, politely eating one tiny bite and staying quiet the rest of the meal with not another spoonful eaten). But, the group so loved the cobbler that a recipe swap was brainstormed: the American Blackberry Cobbler for the Greek Milk Bites recipe (delicious yellow tapioca/custard squares served warm or chilled)…hopefully mine come out as great as the Papadias!

After we had filled our bellies, it was time to get to the glorious beach. Costa showed us his favorite spot, just 10 minutes from his house and introduced us to more friends who swore he was, “the number one Greek you’ll ever meet”. These friends also happened to own the small beach shack where we would order frappes (ice cold whipped coffees, similar to those in the U.S.) and wander down their island-blue wooden walkway to complete relaxation. Underneath our painted cane umbrellas we sipped frappes until we gained enough oomph to jump into the Ionian Sea, fighting the waves to reach a small sandbar and float while taking in the misted mountains surrounding the sea. We often found a full plate of fried minnows, french fries, tomatoes, and bread awaiting us after a swim – all free thanks to Costa’s amazing friends at the beach shack. We were even more awed when we found out that all the fish we were being served was caught freshly that morning by the owner. In addition to daytime visits to the beach, we explored neighboring towns, restaurants, coffee shops, and were sure to catch the sunset each evening.

One afternoon, The Papas and Papadias drove us to the top of the highest hill in the area, upon which sits an ancient church. As we cut back and forth on the mountain roads, the church slowly became more and more in focus. Finally, we parked the car and walked around the last curve of the mountain. The crisp white and blue railings guarded the sheer drop to the valleys below, while the church laid entombed in the stone mountainside. Walking inside was like walking in a cave with cleanly carved marble stairs and religious photos and offerings everywhere. After a few minutes, the priest began to sing an old Greek Orthodox religious tune; it froze us all and we absorbed the beautiful sound reverberating off of the the cave walls. When we walked outside the sun was just beginning to set over the olive tree hills and bowl cities beneath us. It was incredible.

On our day off, we went to Olympia where the first ever Olympics took place in 776 BC. The pillars and fallen Greek ruins spoke to the mighty times, and the sprawling grounds to the grandiosity of it all. Lee ran the Olympic field, and I appreciated all the strides women have made throughout history as females could not even watch the games at that time. I also developed a new found love for and appreciation of the symbolic olive branch Olympians wore! Seeing the physical history of the games gave it so much more richness.

Categories
Qatar

Splendor, Splendor

As we backpacked and “roughed it” across Europe we had the subtle notion in the back of our minds that soon enough, we would be in Doha, Qatar for 2.5 splendidly splendorous days of pampered bliss. We were booked at the W in West Bay in a corner suite, in one of the world’s wealthiest per capita nations. And we took full advantage of all the perks of hotel living: decadent breakfasts punctuated by pastries and melon smoothies, free snacks in the VIP lounge, complimentary drinks in the Crystal Lounge, sinking into the world’s comfiest beds, and tuning out the world with comedy movies in suite.

As a major early birthday surprise, Lee also treated me to a fancy massage at Bliss Spa in the hotel! I was so shocked (I thought we were just wondering around the hotel checking out all the “sites”), that after Lee said “Room 714 is here to check in for her massage”, I turned bright red, spat out “What?!” and was then briskly whisked away with a “Don’t worry, we will take care of you”. It was other-worldly, especially after carrying life on my shoulders for the past few months and most recently working so hard on the farm. The sauna and waterfall shower afterwards was just icing on the cake! Thank you to my wonderful boyfriend who never ceases to surprise me!

Since Doha was our mental break from the rush and go of travel, we did not step foot outside of the doors for a single tourist activity. We did watch the world spin by in the lobby, with men floating through in majestic white thawbs telling stories of dessert heat stroke amongst beautiful blooming orchids and diffuse light shining down from a sea of blue orbs.

We are now fully re-charged and ready to take on Asia; Nepal here we come!

Categories
Bulgaria

Seaside in Sozopol

Relax. Read. Rejuvenate. Repeat. It seems the Black Sea Coast in Bulgaria was made for slowing down and soaking up coastal living.

For two weeks, we managed to indulge in this sentiment entirely. We boarded in the home of a local Bulgarian grandmother, Gayna, who has a 3-story house she rents out to travelers throughout the high season. At just $13 a night, we enjoyed a private room with a balcony and views of the ocean, hot water, a complete kitchen, and lovely Bulgarian exchanges. Though Gayne did not speak a lick of English, she was full of stories, questions, warnings, hugs, and kisses. I am pretty sure she told me one night that she was so impressed with Lee (a man cooking in the kitchen) that she was going to steal him away in a sack and keep him forever…though that may have just been my liberal interpretation of all the hand gesturing, “oohs” + “aahs”, and smiles.
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Trying to soak up the long, lazy days as much as possible, we awoke each morning and enjoyed a breakfast of fresh fruit and cereal. Afterwards, we practiced yoga on our balcony before heading out for the day.

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Just outside our doorstep was the local neighborhood park, and a short walk downhill past an ever-patient donkey brought us to the main strip of beach in Sozopol. With the help of an incredibly gracious Russian family we met on the journey to Sozopol, we discovered hidden gems thoughout town. The jutting rocks around the point of the peninsula were our main haunt. We soaked up the heat from the rocks below and sun above while winds whipped at the air and waves crashed dramatically against the rocks. We sat for hours in the miniature alcoves we found amongst the rocks and explored the florescent living pools of seaweed around us.

soil and thread

soil and thread

soil and thread

Each day, we tried to discover a new rock or beach hideaway, comparing the merits of each to the day before. The crushed seashell beach was enchanting, with a pastel rainbow of shells in varying shades of peach and purple. I loved combing through the seashell sand to find well-worn sea glass in greens and blues.

soil and thread

The entire coast was dotted with fig trees that were poppingly ripe. We enjoyed the fresh fruit by the handful, and the seagulls above enjoyed the occassional snack from the trees as well. The fallen and dripping fruit created sticky patches that reminded me of smushed fig newtons. The area was also populated with pomegranate trees that were in fruit, which is incredible to see since they are so foreign.

For the price of a cold beer ($2.50 lev or about $1.88 US), we lounged in an infinity pool overlooking the cliffs and beaches of The Black Sea below, listening to American ballads and alternating between our deck chairs and the chilly water in the midst of “infinity”.

soil and thread

The Old Town (founded in the 7th century BC) is lined with half-stone, half-wooden houses with dark creaking boards that lend the city its sea-blown charm. Between each set of houses were stone paths with views to the roaring ocean.

soil and thread

soil and thread

soil and thread

soil and thread

soil and thread

Most of our lunches consisted of the basic Bulgarian salad ingredients: fresh tomato, feta, cucumber, and bell pepper. Though we did try “tsatsa”, or tiny little minnows fried whole (bones, tail, eyes, and all). Lee enjoyed a heaping plateful; I enjoyed one!

soil and thread

soil and thread

We cooked simple meals for supper, but it was the first time I really whole-heartedly enjoyed cooking. We made our own pasta sauce from ingredients bought at the local fruit & vegetable stands (several fresh tomatoes, an onion, and a clove of garlic) and I was wowed with how simply such a delicious sauce could come together. Watching solid ingredients melt to a sauce in the pan before my eyes was so rewarding. Clearly, I am a new chef! We got a little more adventurous with a potato pastry supper we made with phyllo dough, potatoes, eggs, and sausage (inspired by a local dish I ordered in the Old Town a few days prior) which was pretty good though we made mental tweaks for the next round!

soil and thread

The gorgeous water views and endless inlets kept calling our names, so we tried to spend as much time by the water as possible. We dove head first into The Black Sea, tread in the strong waves, donned goggles for intrepid exploration, and read + wrote by the water. Serendipitoulsy, the first poem I turned to in my book captured the spirit of Sozopol and our current exploits perfectly:

Roadways by John Masefield
One road leads to London,
One road runs to Whales,
My road leads me seawards
To the white dipping sails.

One road leads to the river,
As it goes singing slow;
My road leads to shipping,
Where the bronzed sailors go.

Leads me, lures me, calls me
To salt green tossing sea;
A road without earth’s road-dust
Is the right road for me.

A wet road heaving, shining,
And wild with seagull’s cries,
A mad salt sea-wind blowing
The salt spray in my eyes.

My road calls me, lures me
West, east, south, and north;
Most roads lead men homewards,
My road leads me forth

To add more miles to the tally
Of grey miles left behind,
In quest of that one beauty
God put me here to find.

soil and thread

Categories
Bulgaria

Night Train to the Land of Rakia

Stepping onto Platform 2 in Budapest to catch the night train through Romania to Bulgaria held so much promise. I had visions of a magical train chugging through the countryside while I sipped tea and made conversation with new internationl friends over the whooshing landscapes passing by. Well, the dream was at least partially true. Once we found our assigned compartment with help from the conductor, I only had to take one step in to realize I wanted to be taking two steps out. The cabin was 6 feet wide, 6 feet deep, and 8 feet high…with 6 beds and 6 people crammed inside. Luckily, the large picture windows right outside the cabin opened half way so I got some fresh air and met our friendly Bulgarian cabinmate who was socializing in the hall before shutting up in the sardine can. Since the beds were stacked closely on top of eachother, you could not sit up straight in the cabin, which meant the two French girls inside were dangling half on and half off of their beds, necks crooked, eating ham and cheese sandwiches and probably wondering like us, “how are we going to make this into a comfortable 22 hour ride?!”. I decided to take a quick stroll and see how our neighbors were living on my way to the dining car- which surely had to have some sense of luxury, even if that meant a seat to sit upright in for a little while. About every fourth cabin I passed looked to be living the high life, with true seats and seemingly plenty of head and leg room! I quickly grabbed Lee so we could investigate further together and then we had a eureka! moment, we simply had to fold the bottom and middle bunks in the correct order and they created a set of six comfortable seats for non-sleeping time. We introduced the idea to our cabin of newly found bent neck friends and were met by enthusiastic cheers. The rest of the evening we spent comfortably exchanging travel tales, listening to our Bulgarian bunkmate tell us about living through communism, and answering endless questions that began with, ” Is it true that in America….” (one of the most humerous being: “Is it true that in America if you are stopped by a cop and you move abruptly, they will kill you?”) When we couldn’t hold sleepiness off any longer, we lay the beds down again, crawled in, and fell asleep like babies in the gently rocking car. It had that spark of magic. And in the morning we had a cup of tea over the sunrise and soaked in how lovely the night train turned out to be after all.

When we reached Bucharest, Romania we changed trains for the remainder of our journey to Veliko Tornovo, Bulgaria. This second train was what train dreams are actually made of. Lee and I had our own cabin that was decked out in cherry wood and brass furnishings. The craftmanship from eras past could be felt in each little detail as we discovered one functional luxury after another. From swinging brass coat hangers to a mirrored door that opened to reveal shelving, to hinged rope shelves that could be flipped down to hold little items like a book or journal, to the flip up shelf that gave you access to your own sink with running hot and cold water. We were very appreciative of all the train’s workmanship and charm. The conductor even gave me his hand as I stepped off the train at our final destination.

Since travel days are never as straight forward as you think they could be, we weren’t all that surprised when we were told 30 minutes before our stop that the tracks by our ticketed destination were being worked on so we would have to get off a village early. We had arranged for our hostel to pick us up at the train station (it is a courtesy they provide since the hostel is at the top of many curving hills and hard to find). Since we were at a different train station at a different time than arranged, we felt badly that someone may be waiting for us in an empty station as we somehow made our way to the correct village and on to the hidden hostel. So we were quite pleased when we heard a beckoning, “Finkbeiner!?”, from a 30-something year old man dressed in neon blue hot shorts and a pink tank top. After assessing if any other travelers also needed a ride to Veliko Tarnovo (they either did not need a ride or were too skeptical of our scantily clad friend), we hopped in the car and were on our way. Mr. Hot Pants turned out to actually be Mr. Hostel Owner and gave us a driving tour of several monasteries in one of the old stone towns nearby with spectacular valley views. Crossing one of the main streets, we stopped for an elderly man and his extremely well trained goat as they stepped to the other side of the road together. Once arriving at the hostel, our host Tosho continued the generosity and insisted we join in the celebrations of the evening – it was his mother’s birthday and there was lots of excitement in the air. Tosho and the other staff welcomed their local Bulgarian friends to join the party as well; and since we were the only guests at the hostel, and since the hostel actually used to be Tosho’s house, we immediately felt like we were having a true Bulgarian experience. We sat outside underneath red and green grape vines shading the porch and were poured small glasses of pure Rakia, a smooth golden liquor made from grapes, which Tosho’s father had made. Salad after salad appeared on the table. Fresh tomatoes, sliced cucucumber, otherworldly feta, heaps of olives. Grapes pulled from above. More rakia. Then came the roasted bread and grilled spiced meat patties. Toast after toast was given to the birthday girl. “Nastrovia!” More rakia was poured, and the Bulgarian conversations flowed. White bread with a red tomato paste was brought out and we were encouraged to eat! eat! (though that dish was really our least favorite). By 3am the last drops of the rakia had been drunk and the whole party agreed, we had celebrated Tosho’s mother’s birthday perfectly! And he promised to give her all our best, as we had not seen her all night since she was miles away having a quiet birthday evening.

The following day we awoke to stunning views right outside our window. The death-defying drive to the hostel through twisted cobblestone and tight corners, up alleyways and past cliffs proved worth it. One of the oldest villages in Bulgaria, and once the capital of the Second Bulgarian Empire (1185-1386), we had hilltop views of Veliko Tarnovo’s Tsaravets Fortress and palace ruins across the valley. Though to me the powerful, historical hillside looked like a 90 minute walk away, it was a mere 20 minute stroll through town and past the shops selling traditional pottery and handmade jewelry. Once there, we hiked throughout the ruins, imagining what life must have been like all those years ago. At the top of the hill, past execution corner, stands the Patriarchal Cathedral of the Holy Ascension of God, the interior of which is painted in muted modern frescoes that almost feel like a street art interpretation of war, famine, and religion. In fact, we are told the paintings are a mixture of traditional religious figures, historical figures, and historical Bulgarian scenes. Due to these paintings (created in 1985 as part of the rebuilding of the ruined building from Ottoman destruction in 1393), the Cathedral has not been reconsecrated. From the many, many churches and cathedrals I have visited, this is definitely one of the most shocking/absorbing/heaviest.

soil and thread

soil and thread

If you’re lucky when visiting Veliko Tarnovo, enough people may pay to see the whole fortress lit up at night for the famous Light Show. Since this threshold of overcoming the cost to run the show is unpredictable, we felt lucky indeed when the Cathedral bells starting ringing to announce the show. Climbing the hostel stairs to the best view of the full fortress, we watched in awe as color after color bathed the various parts of the fortress telling a story of the area’s battled past. The compound seemed even more grand and sprawling than when we had wandered its grounds just a few hours earlier.

While at the hostel, we made friends with a wildly outrageous Welshman who, as of recently, had become the hostel gardener, personality, and general caretaker. He too had a fondness for the rakia, and for short shorts, and for good storytelling. So when the opportunity arose to get him a few hours off of work to show us the best fishing spot in town, we jumped on it. Lee had purchased fishing line and a few hooks while in Sopron, Hungary so we had the basics for our our adventure. Tagging quickly behind Andrew the Welshman, we followed his lead in greeting all the locals in Bulgarian, and hopped down one broken and grown-over alley after the next. Just past the shuttered biscuit factory, we reached the premium spot to access the Yantra river.  Since the only fishing shop in town was closed, we did not have a fishing rod or any bait, but Lee being Lee, I knew that wouldn’t put much of a stop to his fishing. He looked around and found the tallest, straightest tree (a small 9 foot walnut) and cut it down. The he stripped the tree of its branches and voila! Fishing pole problem solved. Now for the bait. We walked down the hill a little closer to the water and Lee picked up a rock and threw it in a shallow pool of water, with the second toss Lee had is bait: a minnow.  The fishing continued and when one bait was lost the next was in line: a cricket, a frog, a leech (eek! I know). As the men fished and threw rocks, I sat along the rocky banks and used my water colors and the river water to capture a little scene of the day: the rocks, the clear cool water, the steep lush hillside, and the jutting fortress overlooking us all. The fishing didn’t produce much, but we had a grand time.
soil and thread

soil and thread

In the evening, we celebrated national Unification Day (in memory of the unification of all Bulgarian states on September 6, 1885). For the entire weekend, a motley crew of artists, musicians, and performers filled the streets and delighted all the town children – along with us! There were face painters, drum circles, fire throwers, tight-rope walkers, a manipulator (marionette’s puppeteer), graffitti artists, and an almost indescribable circle of people connecting plastic tubes to each other while simultaneously listening to and talking through them in a disorganized dance. There was much to absorb, but we kept finding ourselves pulled back to the manipulator who danced along with his marionnette to upbeat music and increased the skill + difficulty of their moves as the kids’ eyes grew wider. Many of the performers spent the night at the hostel too, so we awoke feeling like we were in a bit of a circus. A grape-drenched, hilltop, Bulgarian circus.
soil and thread

soil and thread

soil and thread

soil and thread

Categories
Hungary

Beauty in Budapest

Budapest is a beautiful city. A transformative city. The architecture appears far beyond its years, embracing blemishes and turning them into part of the larger breathtaking scenery.

Buda with its hills emphasizes Castle Hill and the surrounding churches and monuments. While across the limestone soaked Danube, Pest holds the Parliament and sprawls out into flat geometric patterns of city streets. Each side melding Roman, Turkish, Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, Classicist and Art Nouveau architecture.




We arrived just in time to celebrate St.Stephen’s Day, the national holiday celebrating the birth of the Hungarian Christian nation over 1,000 years ago. The holiday meant two days of enjoying “The Street of Hungarian Flavors”, crafts, concerts, parades, and processions. Lee was adventurous and tried rooster testicles in a red peppery stew, which he liked. I much preferred the national birthday cake winner of apple, cheese, and poppyseed cake.








Following the holidays we went to the ancient Szechenyi Turkish baths in central Pest. The endless maze of warm, cool, hot and cold baths of all different shapes and sizes kept us guessing and relaxing for over 5 hours. We also tested out the various showers, saunas, underwater gysers, and medicinal baths. The arching ceilings, sculptures, stained glassed windows, and cavernous hideaways were beautiful and carried you into another time. Aquarobics class was even included and we enthusiastically joined as our Hungarian teacher silently dictated the proper movements from on deck. The aroma sauna was another treat, pumping out soothing peppermint in a room set to 104 degrees, lulling you into a dream state. Needless to say, I loved it all! (incompatible water camera means Szechenyi photos will have to be shared later)

Wandering through Pest, we found “the most beautiful cafe in the world”, which we were hoping to visit sooner or later. The self-proclaimed accolade did not disappoint as New York Cafe felt more like a palace than a place to rest your feet and enjoy a cup of coffee- but we did just that. We enjoyed every royal moment amongst the plush red velvet, shimmering gold, and hand-painted frescos lining the domed ceiling.

To take in some of the best views, we went on several city hikes up the Buda Hills. The Citadella, built in 1848 as a fortress (though never used as such), is topped with a unique female statue proudly holding a bird feather above her head and can be seen all through Pest. In addition to liking the pure form of the statue, it felt as though it was erected just for Alexis- the brave free spirit!

The other statue which really spoke to me in Budapest was one of a little girl wearing a glorified bath robe and paper crown atop her head. “The Little Princess” has a special place in the hearts of Hungarians as she was the first statue placed in Budapest in the post communist era (1989) and represents the hopes and dreams of a brighter future.

Each night we spent camping in the Buda hills. The campsite was run by what we considered to be typical Hungarians: direct, stern, friendly, and very accomodating. We slept on tiered plateaus carved into the hills and ate the locally made goulash. Several nights we awoke to the sounds of a wild boar trampsing through the woods looking for food, but luckily we were on the right side of a fence that seperated us from the too wild wilderness. Since we stayed in Budapest camping for 12 days, we made good friends with the campsite folks and were given a bottle of white Hungarian wine and a jar of red pepper paste (Lee’s newly found favorite condiment!) for our journey ahead.

Just before leaving, Lee also made sure to buy two Turo Rudis, his absolute favorite candy bar that is a sour orange flavored cheese covered in milk chocolate. He ate at least one every day since the discovery on our first day in Budapest.

And when we had to depart with several $20,000 bills (roughly $130 US) we felt like we owned a kingdom!

Categories
Hungary

The Dessert Spy

Departing Germany we caught a 1st class train (because we purchased tickets several days in advance and because we got lucky, the price for 1st class was the same as 2nd class) and rode 5 hours through Austria before arriving in Sopron, Hungary.
This border town eased us gently into the new Hungarian way of thinking, with most signs and menus in both Hungarian and German. The city center of Sopron is found through a maze of circular alleyways lined with alternatingly beautiful and crumbling stone buildings.


Some alleys carry you deeper into the old town, while others dump you into sunken bazaars with more walkways crisscrossing above you and street stalls in every direction. While exploring one of these alleys, we spotted a sign for a free art exhibit inside and up a winding staircase. Climbing the stairs we heard lights beginning to click on and were greeted by a smiling Hungarian man who proceeded to walk through and explain the entire exhibit to us. His excitement to utilize his English and explain complex ideas expressed through art was contagious. The whole exhibit was completed by a single artist, though you would have never known it looking at the 5 rooms of drastically different styles (pointilism, abstraction, surrealism, use of a single inked line, etc.).


After meeting our friendly art purveyor, we continued to explore the rest of the town, including the Roman ruins where life used to be bustling with a forum, church, and gladiator games (when the city was known as Scarbantia on the commercial Amber Road).

Walking through town and back to our hostel, we heard a low sputtering engine and the next thing we knew there was a bright green + yellow plane flying 60 feet above our heads, fluttering all the tree leaves and momentarily flustering the two of us. With nobody else in the town so much as turning their heads to the sky, the plane continued canvasing the city, seemingly following us on our path back to our hostel. Lee joked they were on to me, “the dessert spy”, since I try to get a glimpse of all the sweets wherever we go!

With all its charm, you can still readily feel Hungary’s past of wars fought and lost, and communisms grip slowly fading since 1991.