How to Get the Most out of Hamburg, Germany (300 Words)

Hamburg will always be a special place for me since I lived/studied here in 2008. I visited a friend here again recently and some things have changed over the past 8 years but mostly it's the same old city I remember. 

Hamburg is a big, busy port city in Northern Germany. 

S-bahn/U-bahn local trains included in Eurail or buy daily pass €6. 

CITY

FREE Walking Tour | Robin & the Tour Guides (yellow umbrellas) 7 days/week.
I enjoyed Rhonda's Historic City Center tour (11:00 - 2:30) so much that I joined the Harbor/Reeperbahn tour (14:00-16:00) as well! 

ALLSTER LAKE


Big body of water between the city and the suburbs. Lots of parks/greenspace on the suburb side; shopping and architecture on the city side. 

HARBOR

Take a walk through the underwater Elb tunnel under the harbor. 

HVV Ferry (Fähre) cheap ride around the harbor, €2.

Discounted touristic rides on Sundays. 

Small St. Pauli park overlooking the Harbor is a great place to watch the sunset.

ST. PAULI / REEPERBAHN 

Abundance of street art concentrated in St. Pauli/Reeperbahn area.

FREE Alternative Hamburg Tour Wednesday - Saturday; see lots of street art! 

See the Beatles tribute: sculptures + round record-shaped discography on the ground. 

Eat at least one Franzbröchen, Hamburg's famous cinnamon pastry. 

 The famous Franzbröchen 

The famous Franzbröchen 

Have a drink (€4-€14) at Clouds/Heaven's Nest downtown for a beautiful panoramic view of the city.

Reeperbahn at night: Red light district
Lots of clubs/bars around Hans Albers Platz offer live music with no cover. 

ART/PHOTOGRAPHY

Deichterhallen
Closed Mondays
Contemporary, Avant Garde Art & Photography
€14 both halls
Tuesdays after 16:00 = €5
Just make sure you check out the current exhibitions online first so you don't get stuck paying to see a bunch of port-a-toilets like I did. -_-

 Art???

Art???

Cutting Costs while Traveling Venice/Venezia Italy (300 Words)

Venice is a roughly fish-shaped cluster of islands in shallow water off the Eastern coast of Italy.

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 If you're staying in the islands, take the train all the way to Venezia Santa Lucia.

Buy a continuous ACTV Public Transport pass for the public boat taxis (vaporetto) and busses. €20/1 day, €30/2 days, €40/3 days. Pass activates after the first swipe and will remain valid for the following 24/48/72 hours.

 

All transport costs/entry fees reduced if you are under age 26.

 

City streets are confusing but walkable. Download Ulmon offline map app. (link)

 

Register in advance online for a free walking tour. Three hours rain or shine. Tip your guide at the end. Lots of local insight and information like how to skip the huge queue at San Marco's Basilica. ;)

 

Don't try to see every island - most look the same. Do visit Murano (famous glass products and production) and Burano (a rainbow of architecture).

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Pick three main museums or landmarks to make priority.


Free to go inside the famous San Marco Basilica.


Eat small, inexpensive tapas dishes at an authentic Osterilla.


AVOID all pizza and foods at the most touristic spots (Rialto Bridge, San Marco's Square) and places with huge, multi-page menus, pictures of the food or promoters trying to recruit you.


Watch the San Georgio limestone church (built by Palladio) glow at sunset.

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Buy one thing: Murano glass accessory (jewelry, wine stopper, cuff links, etc) - many options under €10. Street stalls are cheaper than shops and items are usually cheapest on the other islands.


Cool books, postcards and stamps available at Acqua Alta bookstore.

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Touristy Gondola rides are €80 for 30 minutes. Instead take a short trip across the canal in a "ferry Gondola" for €2.

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I really loved Venice and want to come back here to live for a little while someday.

Mini Guide to Marseille, France in 300 Words

Second largest city in France, located on southern coast. 

Ancient; first Greek settlement in France = Massalia. 

Very diverse, at least 50% immigrants. 

Relatively walkable but also a metro, tram and busses. 

City is old, dirty and kinda stinky in some parts but still many diamonds in the rough. 

 

St. Charles = Main Train Station

Vertigo Centre Hostel is super close. Clean and comfy enough. Breakfast (extra 5 Euro) is good if you like bread. 

Vieux Port: Packed with boats and people

Ferry to Chateau d'If around 11 euro

Inspiration for Count of Monte Cristo. I ran out of time before I could do this. :(

 

Le Fort Saint-Jean

muCEM 9.50 Euro but so worth it

Incredible, inspirational collection of Pablo Picasso 

Well executed, educational displays on Mediterranean history

Historic architecture and cathedrals

 

Basilisque Notre Dame de la Garde

NOT the famous/Hunchback one (it's in Paris)

Hike up a hill and lots of stairs, nice architecture and interior decor

 

Cours Julien

The bo-bo (bourgeois-bohemian) community

I serendipitously stumbled into the street art capital of France. 

I spent hours meandering around the streets & admiring many murals. 

 

Musee de Beaux Arts / Musee d' Histoire Naturelle / Palais De Longchamp

The building is more interesting than anything inside. Save yourself 11 euros and just admire the architecture and Longchamp park behind it. 

 

Parc Nationale des Calanques

Beautiful national park less than an hour from the city center. 

It's huge and there are no signs so I highly recommend a map

No entry fee and can be reached by public transport (1.60 Euro each way)

    Metro red line towards Santa Marguerite

    Change to Bus 21 at Rond Point du Prado (walk left out of station, cross street, bus in front of big stadium)

    Ride until the last stop at Luminy (University) and walk past the traffic circle towards the giant rocks and you'll eventually run into the trails. 

    

A Guide to Art, Parks, Surfing & More in Munich (300 Words)

There's fabulous art & entertainment everywhere in Munich as long as you know where to look!

Englischer Garten / English Garden

Huge greenspace (3.7 km) on the Isar River. FREE!

Walk, jog, run, bike, surf. Yes, surf!

Mini Hofbrauhaus: English Garden, No costume necessary. Less crowded and less tourists but many dogs.

I dislike it but I attempted to drink a whole glass of beer but could only finish Half-a-weissen. 😂 LOL

Personally, I do not understand the appeal of beer gardens since I don't smoke cigarettes or drink beer or feast on dead flesh but apparently a lot of other people find it enjoyable.

I walked for several hours during my street art scavenger hunt today. Couldn't have done it without this helpful post/map. Like hunting for buried/hidden treasure as most of the murals are below street level and/or under bridges.

Three street art hot spots on the east side of the river.

Street Art Mecca is located at Burogebaude Viehhof / Outdoor cinema near Ludwigvorstadt-Isarvorstadt. www.viehhof-kino.de

The place was kinda closed and partially under construction but I found a way in anyways. Met a group of local guys about to start a fresh design.

Bikers, sunbathers, picnic blankets and book readers are scattered around the Rosengarten & Frülingsanlagen when the weather is nice.

Schwabing = University & Arts district & my favorite area. 

Pinakotheken / Pinakothek der Moderne = Traditional & Modern Art in four buildings; one of the world's largest art museums.

 Monet

Monet

Marienplatz: Full of tourists but you have to fight the crowds to see the old architecture.

Haus der Kunst | Contemporary Art Museum

Next to Haus der Kunst is the famous city surf spot, Eisbachwelle.

Dean&David: A chain with relatively cheap vegan/vegetarian food.

 

Munich is such a creative city! I hope to come back to paint my own mural here someday!

Much Love,

10 Simple, Free or Low-Cost Things to Do For More Authentic & Adventurous Travel (125 Words)

Here's my mental cultural checklist for each country I visit. I'm not super strict about it. I just try to let things happen naturally and I've rarely regretted it! 

• Ride a public bus and/or train

• Eat something local from a street vendor (preferably cooked/avoid meat)

• Buy & try local fruits, veggies (preferably peelable) 

• Learn to say Hello and Thank You in the local language

• Talk to at least one new person each day 

• Visit at least one museum

• Visit at least one park/green space 

• Look for local street murals and/or public art

• Drink a local beverage (non-alcoholic, usually tea) 

• Participate in local events/festivals or volunteer for local organizations when possible

 Holi is celebrated in Nepal and India in March

Holi is celebrated in Nepal and India in March

 Local produce in Cairns, Australia

Local produce in Cairns, Australia

 Local fruit shake with a new friend in Nusa Penida 

Local fruit shake with a new friend in Nusa Penida 

 Riding the local Circle Train in Yangon, Myanmar

Riding the local Circle Train in Yangon, Myanmar

 Street Art + Yoga in Singapore

Street Art + Yoga in Singapore

What's something you enjoy doing to enhance your travel experience? 

Much Love,

A Gift From a Monk in Myanmar (450 words)

I made many wrong decisions during my first visit to Shwedagon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar. I walked over 4 km from my hotel and arrived during the peak heat of the day while the temp was well over 100°F/38°C.

I had considered wearing my Longyi that morning but opted instead for shorts. This means I had to rent a communal Longyi at the Pagoda entrance to cover my knees. As is typical for temples, no one is allowed to wear shoes so I was walking - or rather running - around with bare feet. 

The sun was scorching throughout the cloudless sky which caused the floor tiles to heat up like hot coals. Everyone was running from one patch of shade to the next, trying to relieve their suffering soles. 

As I was navigating a maze of smaller stupas, I came upon an old monk who waved me over. He offered me a drink of water even though I had my own supply. He made some small talk and told me his name is Tegyi and he is 83 years old and he takes the bus to Shwedagon every day. I had a feeling he was going to ask for money, but technically monks have to. By definition they beg for everything, even food during daily alms rounds. 

 

I respect the Sangha so I gave him a 5,000 kyat note. It was obviously much more than he was expecting. In return he offered me all three sets of his mala beads and his water and even his English-Burmese dictionary. I accepted the small, black wooden beads which I could tell were worn and had been used often; not just bought at a market that morning.

This seemed like a small win after my series of sweaty mistakes. 

I thought I was pretty special until I saw a photo of the same monk with a German guy from my hostel on Facebook. (Although I'm certain he did not receive the same gift.) 

I'm curious, do you think this monk was legit or was he just trying to profit off of tourists? If you've been to Shwedagon, have you met him as well?

Much Love,

My Fortune Telling Fail in Myanmar (225 Words)

Today I decided to sweep around the stupas because stepping on small rocks and sticks significantly detracts from the benefit of walking meditation. It was barely 8:00 but beads of sweat were already dripping off my nose and forehead like a leaky faucet. 

I was approached by an old Burmese man who invited me to come sit in the shade for a bit. He had very limited, broken English and there was hardly any comprehension happening on either side of our conversation so I tried to thank him and shake his hand so I could get back to work. Instead he grabbed my hand and flipped it over to study my palm. 

I was excited and fully expected an insightful, prophetic, Eat, Pray, Love or Holy Cow type of experience. Instead, the only words I could comprehend as he pointed to different parts of my palm were water, small sister and sleep. So I have no idea what my supposed fortune means other than perhaps my younger sister is planning to purchase a waterbed?

Also I'm pretty sure he was drunk for three reasons. It wasn't a familiar scent but I think his breath faintly smelled of foreign liquor, he very clearly said the word "alcohol" during our nonsense conversation and he said repeatedly "I love you more than words can say."

So, yeah. 

Anyone else had funny fails while traveling? Let me know in the comments so I can LOL.

Much Love, 

Yangon Travel in 200 Words / 5 Pictures

E-visa Tourist 28 days
Yangon International Airport (RGN); Present PRINTED COPY of approval letter @customs

Main city is walkable; also use public busses, train, pedi-cabs and taxis

Chan Myaye Guesthouse: So nice, I stayed there twice! 
(in private room $20-$22 USD per night)
Dorm beds (fan only), singles with A/C en suite or shared bathroom
Great location, yummy breakfast included, sweet staff
So many stairs

 Shwedagon Pagoda

Shwedagon Pagoda

Must-See: Shwedagon Pagoda

8,000 kyat entry, huge complex
No shoes, floor gets very hot mid-day
Keep shoulders, knees covered
4 entrances (north, south, east, west)
Contains Buddhist relics, possibly the oldest stupa in the world (2,600 years old)
Walk clockwise, Know your birth day of the week so you can stop at that section of the stupa

 Shwedagon Pagoda Complex

Shwedagon Pagoda Complex

Also:
Sule Pagoda: Downtown near city hall, Ancient Buddhist stupa, site of 1988 Uprising

 Sule Pagoda

Sule Pagoda

Bogyoke Aung San Market: Jewelry, arts, crafts, clothing (closed Mondays)

Circle train: 3 hours, under 500 kyat, see a lot of scenery and locals

 Snacks for sale on the Circle Train

Snacks for sale on the Circle Train

 The view outside the city on the Circle Train

The view outside the city on the Circle Train


Kandawgi Lake - FREE, nice green space, playgrounds (east of Shwedagon)


Peoples Park - west of Shwedagon, green space with museum, 5,000 kyat entry


Botahtaung Pagoda - Near Yangon River 3,000 kyat entry
(The rest of the river is mostly industrial.)

 

Feel free to ask more specific questions or for advice in the comments. 
Much Love,

The Wetter, The Better! Thingyan Water Festival | Yangon, Myanmar

Thingyan is a Theravada Buddhist water festival celebrated in Myanmar around mid-April right before their traditional new year. In modern times, it's a playful water war that is waged on both the city and village streets across the country which happened to last five days this year.

Many people ride around in the back of trucks to get doused by hose-weilding people on temporary roadside spraying stages called pandals. They are literally like human car washes. No where and no one is dry. Which is ok, because April is the hottest, driest month of the year here. This week the temp was over 100ºF/38ºC every day. (A similar festival called Songkran is celebrated in Laos and Thailand around the same time.) 

I met a couple guys in my hostel at breakfast and we later set off in search of festivities. It took all of three seconds after leaving the hostel to start getting doused; locals especially love to get foreigners wet so we were moving targets. You'll start getting splashed early around 8:00 or 9:00. Then there's kind of a break during the peak heat, maybe noon til 15:00 but the water wars resume. A dry truce is supposed to happen around 18:00. 

There was a stage and a huge crowd in front of the Town Hall near Sule Pagoda and it didn't take us long to get picked up by a truckload of locals. The truck was packed with people, water reserves and beer. We drove past a few splash stations and got soaked with firehoses. The force of the water knocked my hat off of my head and when I was finally able to look up, I saw that it had landed on the road and someone on a truck behind us had seen and retrieved it.

Well, I wasn't about to lose my favorite hat that has traveled the world with me since I bought it from a surf shop in Bali so I jumped off the back of our truck and ran to the truck behind us. (Best decision ever to wear my vibrams that day instead of flip flops.) I saw a dude on the truck wearing my hat and pointed to it emphatically because the music and crowds were so loud that he wouldn't be able to hear anything I said. He pointed at the hat then at me. I nodded and he took it off and tossed it down to me. Victoriously, I raced back to my own truck. No thing left behind! 

A few kilometers out of the city center, we promptly got a flat tire. No worries, though, we just joined a splashing station on the side of the road and doused trucks and busses as they drove by. Yep, even the public busses are fair game during Thingyan. 

The main event seemed to take place on the road near Inya Lake. There were at so many pandals set up with entertainment and/or water hoses that the streets were flooded. The guys and I followed Htet and Jesse - our gracious hosts for the day - through crowds of people dancing and moshing through a perpetual, manmade monsoon. Steve and I were armed with buckets and Walker ended up with a pretty sweet dolphin gun with accompanying backpack. 

In the city, people gather on the streets and in any public water source, including fountains and pools. There is no shortage of street food and I enjoyed my fair share of fried things, fruits, grilled corn, fresh-pressed sugar cane juice and - wait, stop everything - ice cream. 

After leaving the city, I'm glad I also got to experience some rural Thingyan celebrating after arriving at Thabarwa in Thanlyin. People, especially kids, are just as ready to soak you with water. Instead of trucks and stages, substitute motorbikes, village houses, small shops and buckets on the side of the road. 

I have to admit at first, I thought this was an incredible waste of natural resources, but eventually realized it all evaporates and will come back during the rainy season. Did I mention how refreshing it is to be soaked with water when its ridiculously hot outside? 

Life in Suburban Kathmandu, Nepal

I had an adventure on a public bus from Changu Narayan to Kathmandu. It was blaring Nepali (or Hindi?) techno music and people were stuffed inside like sardines and kids were even riding on the roof. 

I got off at the last stop and got a taxi to take me the rest of the way to my home stay location. It was literally in the shadow of Swayumbhunath, the Monkey Temple that I had visited once before. The house was four stories high with marble floors and steps. My room was located on the third floor but wasn't ready yet so I had lunch and tea and the fourth floor balcony and was warmly welcomed by a small army of pugs.

It's a pretty full house. The house is owned by Janak and his wife Pushpa and they have a daughter. There are at least half a dozen village boys that live on the second floor in order to go to school in town. During the day, the first floor functions as a daycare for another six or so special needs kids and two older ladies manage that group. Two sisters named Sonita and Anita from a village do all the cooking and cleaning. Then there are three bedrooms devoted to volunteers like myself and there were three others when I arrived. 

Then there are the dogs. Based on the workaway profile, I thought they would all be strays, but it turns out they were quite the opposite. My job was to walk them in the mornings and evenings. 

Rambo is a big, strong, somewhat intimidating German Shepard but his bark is bigger than his bite. I always had to keep him from eating other dogs poop on the road. Goldie and Whitie are two Retrievers named after their coat colors. Amy was a Boxer with way too much energy who took me for walks for the first two days but then was adopted by another family. Cherry is a cocker spaniel who had puppies a couple days after I arrived. There were three pugs: Puggy, the youngest, Abby, Puggy's mother and Sweetie, who was very pregnant (or maybe PUGnant - dog pun!). Then lastly there was a black German Shepard puppy who was yet to be named. Oh and Cinderella the street dog who just kind of hung around outside the house. 

I don't personally support dog (or cat) breeding of any kind, especially when there are so many neglected on the streets, but at least I know the dogs here are well taken care of.

I think they had a generator because not once do I remember experiencing a power cut. The Internet was great and I had my room all to myself for most of the time. French toast was served daily for breakfast and Dal bhat with rice and veggies for lunch and dinner. The main food staples in Nepal seem to be bread, eggs, rice, potatoes and lentils (main ingredient in dal bhat.) And there was always a hot thermos of tea waiting in the kitchen. (I think more Westerners should adopt this practice instead of using single serve k-cups on demand.) 

I really enjoyed my stay and felt like part of the family. It felt so much more authentic and personal. Pushpa even whipped out the steam machine and some cumin tea when I started getting the sniffles. That definitely wouldn't happen at a hotel. 

Time just flew by and my week there was soon over. I am definitely staying again should I ever return to Kathmandu. 

Rural Life in Changu Narayan, Nepal

After the trek, my next destination in Nepal was a home stay in a village outside Kathmandu called Changu Narayan that I found on Workaway. I wasn't given an address or phone number but I had pictures of the host and his house from the workaway website so the driver was able to get me where I needed to go by pulling over and letting me show said pictures to locals, who pointed us in the right direction. The only option was the long and windy way uphill and we drove until we ran of road and I had get out and walk the remaining few hundred meters with my bags.

I was surprised to find several other workawayers at the home when I arrived, and even more surprised that the majority were from the US. There was also a couple of gap year kids from England, a girl from China and a guy from France. Add to that the other four girls from the States, which brings the total number of guests to nine. A few people were ill, one guy so much so that I didn't see him emerge from his room until 3 days later. 

The house had a lovely facade but was quite modest on the inside. My room on the second floor had two mattresses on the floor each with a  blanket and pillow and a glass coffee table. Standing on the balcony outside, I got a pretty good view of the surrounding hills and Kathmandu city in the valley below. 

I claimed the mattress closest to the window and was thrilled that there was enough space for me to roll out my yoga mat next to it in the morning. Across from me were two rooms, each with actual beds and mattresses and a bit more furniture. We had a rather large balcony and a semi-functional bathroom which became non-functional the next day. 

 Cooking on the wood stove

Cooking on the wood stove

The menu and meal schedule was the same each and every day. A hard-boiled egg and two chapati for breakfast around 7:30, then first dal bhat with rice and potatoes around 10:30 then second dal bhat with rice, potatoes and maybe eggplant or zucchini around 7 pm. I bought some bananas in town to supplement the standard fare. 

 Lunch time or First Dahl Baat

Lunch time or First Dahl Baat

 On the menu: dal bhat, rice and potatoes

On the menu: dal bhat, rice and potatoes

I know it's rural Nepal and I'm not expecting to have all the comforts of home but I would at least like the toilet and shower that are advertised to work. The water pump was broken so the toilet could only flush after a bucket of water was poured down the bowl. And if you wanted to bathe, it was out of the same bucket. In both cases, you would have to take the bucket down to one of the community wells where water trickled out of a spout at a snail's pace. It could take at least 45 minutes to fill said bucket and you'd have to stand there to make sure no one moved your bucket off to the side so they could get water. I also filled my water bottle here and treated it with purification drops. Even though the water appeared fresh and clean and cold, I wasn't taking any chances. 

 One of many trickle wells in the area.

One of many trickle wells in the area.

But back to the bucket. After filling it up, you have to lug it back to the house and and use the water for flushing or bathing. So you can conclude that the toilet doesn't get flushed all that often since it's such a process - maybe once a day. And my room happened to be adjacent to the bathroom so the stench of everyone's accumulated waste gently wafts into your room all night. 

Power cuts are pretty standard in Nepal but they were the worst here. We were lucky if we got 2-5 hours of power per day, but it was enough to charge my phone and I was glad there was occasional wifi. 

 Hoping the tree doesn't fall on the house

Hoping the tree doesn't fall on the house

Then came the work. Instead of the gardening or helping around the house or village like that was suggested on workaway, the host expected us to cut down huge mother flippin' trees. The first day, we walked precariously through a field to a site far away to fell a tree. We all had to pull the tree down via rope so that it didn't fall on a nearby house. Then there was only a single saw with handles on each side so we would take turns sawing off branches and sawing the tree into sections. Turns out, I really don't like cutting down perfectly good trees in their prime, physically or emotionally. 

Then, they decided they wanted to cut down another tree, this time surrounded by a jumble of power lines. By this time the sun was getting close to setting so if we stayed much longer, the arduous walk home would be in the dark. Three of us decided not to take any more risks and walked home while it was still light. 

The next day, we returned to the spot and it started raining soon after we arrived. And not just rain, there was thunder and lightning too and the temperature dropped while our host expected us to continue using the metal saw. I gave up on the saw because I was not about to become a lightning rod but we soon went inside a nearby house to wait for the storm to pass. The family there was very kind and made us tea and gave us cookies and fresh peas from the garden. Then, our host and another guy popped cigarettes into their mouths and just as they were about to light up, I asked if they could please wait and smoke outside later because I am allergic to the smoke. (Seriously, I get a painful, throaty cough when in the presence of cigarette smoke.) They lit up anyways so those burning cigarettes might as well have been a couple of middle fingers. I walked outside and sat by myself under a makeshift tool shed.

The reason we were cutting down trees in the first place was so that the host could turn it into lumber and build an addition on to his house to accommodate more people. But I think he could barely handle the amount of people he already had. I understand how after losing his previous guest house to the earthquake last year, he was kind of desperate for money so I think he was taking as many people as he could get but the more people you have, the harder it is to keep everyone happy. He and his wife were sleeping in the kitchen and two guests were in their bed. The kitchen leaked in several places when it rained. The second floor bathroom didn't work properly and the house was not cleaned regularly, which is extra troublesome when you have so many people getting sick.  

I think there should have been a bit more concern for health and safety. The family here no doubt has good intentions and all the other guests were friendly but overall I did not enjoy this experience. And that's ok. Not every day of traveling is going to be sunshine and butterflies. It does make further appreciate things like eating a variety of meals and functional indoor plumbing. 

These are just some snapshots of rural life in and around the fields near the house that I liked and wanted to share: 

Painting Tibetan Thangka in Kathmandu, Nepal

If you've been to Nepal, you will see some beautiful, incredibly detailed paintings for sale everywhere from the urban capital in Kathmandu to the rural villages. Thangka (also sometimes spelled tangka, thanks or tanka) is a traditional Tibetan Buddhist art form. Paintings of Buddhist deities, scenes or mandalas are painting on cotton or silk and used to be displayed only in monasteries and during religious festivals. They can be also be used as teaching tools or for meditation, but nowadays are mostly sold as souvenirs to tourists. (And they are worth every rupee, by the way.) 

But wait, why are they all over Nepal if they are Tibetan? Ever since China annexed Tibet in the 1950s, many refugees, including the Dalai Lama, fled the country and many ended up in neighboring Nepal. 

Many of the galleries that sell these paintings had signs advertising schools so I assumed that they would accept foreign students, if for nothing else than the money. Many of these studios were understandably clustered around Boudhanath, the famous Buddhist stupa on the outskirts of Kathmandu which is one of the largest in Nepal. It's normally a very impressive structure but it was under renovation, partially due to the earthquake last year so I mostly saw scaffolding during my visit. I inquired about painting at one of these schools and was advised that it would take 7 days and cost 5,000 rupees (about $50 USD). This was a bit out of my budgets for both time and money and was too far to travel from my home stay in Swayambhunath (aka the Monkey Temple). 

 Swayumbunath Stupa (aka the Monkey Temple) near Kathmandu, Nepal

Swayumbunath Stupa (aka the Monkey Temple) near Kathmandu, Nepal

When I got back to my home stay, I explored the immediate area hoping to find another Thangka school since Swayambhunath is also home to a Buddhist stupa. I found no schools but I did discover Swayambhu Environmetal Park, which was free to enter and enjoy and boasted three huge Buddha sculptures representing (left to right) Avalokiteshvara, Amitaba Buddha and Padmasambhava (aka Guru Rinpoche) all over 19 m (60 ft) tall. 

 Swayumbh Park (or Buddha Park) near Kathmandu, Nepal

Swayumbh Park (or Buddha Park) near Kathmandu, Nepal

The next day I searched the internet and found a supposed school located just inside the city and well within walking distance at around 3 km/1.8 miles (one way). After walking the dogs, I headed into town in search of said school. When I arrived, I found it boarded up so I kept walking and ended up at a school in Durbar Square. I was thrilled to find a secret entrance where I wouldn't be hassled by the tourist police to pay the 10,000 ($9.50 USD) rupee World Heritage entrance fee, which I had already paid upon my first visit during Holi, but no longer had my ticket to prove it. 

The owner of the shop, Dev, gladly agreed to let me paint my own and we bargained a price of 3,000 rupees ($28 USD) for the process and supplies. After I looked at a few paintings for inspiration, he agreed to prep a canvas and sketch out a simple mandala shape based on what I liked. I agreed to come back the next day at 10:30 AM.

 Day One

Day One

When I arrived the following morning, my canvas was waiting and the pencil-sketched skeleton on it was about 20" x 20". (I actually still haven't measured the full canvas.) I could tell he used a compass for the circles but freehanded all the straight pieces so I had to spend a little time erasing and realigning parts of the sketch with a ruler. 

I had an assortment of acrylic paints but kept a limited palette of blue, orange, green, red and black. I sat next door on a cushion on the floor of a shop that sold masks and singing bowls. Everyone was very friendly, not to mention curious about what I was doing so I frequently had an audience of locals watching me paint, all offering words of praise and encouragement. I painted for five hours that day, stopping only for a quick lunch break from a nearby vendor who make me a fried egg sandwich which others called a 'Nepali Burger.' I finished the first layer of colors (phase 1) and most of the '[out]lining' (phase 2). 

 Day Two

Day Two

On the second day, I arrived around the same time and painted for six hours. I got through the majority of the gold detailing. This color was literally powdered 18 karat gold mixed with a bit of water. I wanted a gradient of blue rings around the main image so Dev MacGuyvered a compass together out of string and pushpins and penciled in some perfectly circular guidelines. 

One day three, I walked to town with two other girls from my home stay. I showed them my painting-in-progress and Dev bought us all tea. We all chatted for a bit while I started working and once their cups were empty, they headed off to find the Horse Festival. Gotta love Nepal! Another day, another festival!

 Day Three / The Finished Product

Day Three / The Finished Product

It took me about three more hours to design & paint the outermost gold border and paint the blue rings and the background. I was so thrilled to paint those final few brushstrokes around the edge of the canvas. Even though I knew I had just spent days doing it, the painting still didn't feel real. All the locals that I got to know over the past few days complimented me on my work and one even volunteered to take pictures of me holding the finished product. 

The painting process itself was somewhat meditative - especially the intricate detail work with the tiniest of brushes. It's complete focus and concentration, trying to translate the design from my mind to the paper. Maybe one day I'll be able to return to Nepal or Tibet and study at a proper school with a Lama. In the meantime, I'm going to keep seizing every opportunity I have to be creative. 

Solo Travel & Stuffocation

Packing light - or at least attempting to - has been somewhat of a challenge for me. The weight of my pack(s) decreases with each trip, but I still have too much stuff. I mean, did I come here for new and exciting experiences or to lug a bunch of stuff around like a boat anchor? 

 Stuff in Nepal

Stuff in Nepal

I also had some insight into my own hypocrisy. I want to live and travel minimalist, yet I still fall into the trap of buying souvenirs for myself and for others. At least half a dozen times during this trip so far. The stuff is really hard to resist. At first glance it's shiny or colorful or exotic or "such a bargain." But in reality you just end up with cheap junk. I've been to many markets in many different countries and it's all the same: local handicrafts that will end up sitting on a shelf and collecting dust, cotton elephant pants and t-shirts that don't last, jewelry that just gets added to an overwhelming pile and ultimately ends up getting sold at garage sales, brand name counterfeits and knock-offs, and the list goes on. Not to mention the vendors can be incredibly aggressive or persuasive and it's easy to get guilted into buying things you don't even want in the first place. 

 Stuff in Sri Lanka

Stuff in Sri Lanka

With nothing but the best intentions, you attach the amazing experiences that you saw, heard, touched, smelled and tasted to the things you buy. So you attach feelings of fondness to these inanimate 'gifts.' But the recipient did not experience these things so she/he will appreciate the sentiment but the thing will probably get used once or twice then disappear into the darkest depths of the closet. Or the thing may not get used or appreciated at all. 

 Stuff in India

Stuff in India

For Christmas last year, I gave my mom a silk scarf from Cambodia and a jade bracelet from Vietnam and I have yet to see her wear either gift. I knew she already had piles of jewelry and a collection of scarves before I purchased these things but I felt obligated not to come home empty-handed, especially around the holidays. I'm not upset and it's nothing personal against my mom - it's human nature to want more than you need and to not use all that you have, at least in the West. With regards to the holidays, I'm sure my mom appreciated my gifts of time and effort like cooking, chauffeuring, conversing, teaching yoga and even a foot rub or two more than anything tangible that was under the tree. 

 Stuff in Singapore

Stuff in Singapore

Not to mention unplanned souvenirs and gifts can easily blow your travel budget. If you're on a tight budget, you're gonna buy cheap stuff that is mass produced so that a thousand other tourists can buy it too. If you have a bit more money and want to buy some exotic furniture or decor for your home, the item itself may seem like a steal but the shipping costs and risk of damage during transit quickly add up. 

So here's my solution. It's unrealistic and setting myself up for failure to think that I can go the rest of this trip without buying anything else. So after Nepal, I am limiting myself to one item per country. Quality over quantity, one of my core values. Each thing also has to be useful and lightweight. And I have to like it, love it, can't live without it. No buying it even if I'm on the fence or have an inkling of doubt. 

And no more junk for family and friends either. There are several reasons why I've determined postcards are vastly superior souvenirs.
1) Each is handwritten and personalized for its intended recipient.
2) It's a nice, somewhat nostalgic surprise that stands out among the monotony of junk mail, catalogs and local advertising.
3) It's cost effective - most often less than one US dollar for the card and postage.
4) If you look hard enough, you can find unique cards that still support local artisans/photographers.
5) If the recipient doesn't feel the need to keep it, it can be recycled.
6) They are sent right away and don't weigh you down, taking up precious space in your backpack.
7) The personal connection of seeing a picture and hearing how much you loved traveling to a place is more likely to inspire someone else to travel there too instead of a generic trinket. 

 Awesome Postcards 

Awesome Postcards 

I'm leaving some stuff behind in Nepal but I'm still stuck lugging around a bunch more junk from home that I've since decided I can live and travel without.

This lesson I've learned from long-term, solo travel is so applicable to the rest of life too:

You can do more when you have less stuff weighing you down. 

5 Tools for Traveling More Sustainably

Airports - and travel in general - are notorious for mindless indulgence. You're easily preoccupied with making sure you get where you need to go, tempted by the endless offerings of duty free items and "disposable" grab and go products and very possibly sleep deprived if you're taking a flight from Charlotte to New York to London to Kuwait to Delhi to Jaipur, for example. 

Not to mention, there is more than enough rubbish littering the landscape in the otherwise beautiful countries through which I like to travel. I'm only recommending investment in these products because I use them myself and it will drastically reduce your consumption of 'disposable' products later.  

  1. Bamboo utensils - This nifty set contains a fork, spoon, knife and chopsticks carved from oh-so-sustainable bamboo. I spare countless plastic utensils in airports and on planes a one way ticket to the trashcan. 
  2. Collapsible silicone cup - You should see some of the looks I get from flight attendants when I whip this little baby out. They range from surprise to amazement but they are usually always impressed and willing to fill it up with my choice of bubbly beverage (usually ginger ale). On particularly long flights like Sydney to LA, I've seen people breeze through up to 8 plastic cups without a care. 
  3. Compact, reusable Enviro bags - I try not to shop too much but I will inevitably have to buy something so each time I reuse this bag, it's one more battle won against my arch nemesis: the ubiquitous plastic bag. Any reusable bag made from canvas, cloth or recycled materials will do! 
  4. Water bottle - As long as you have a reliable source, any reusable water bottle will save you so much money on pre-bottled water and reduces waste. I'm particularly conscious of plastic bottles because it's what I see littering the streets, land and ocean most often. If your water source is questionable, I highly recommend a Lifestraw water bottle with built in filter. I've used it to drink tap water in Bali, Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.
  5. Glass straw - I don't always use straws but when I do, I prefer one that doesn't get thrown away after one use. Note: To make the most impact with this one, let whoever is preparing your cocktail or chopping the top off of your fresh coconut that you have a straw or better yet, show them. Straws are just handed out like candy at a confectioners convention. 

Here's what I bought from Amazon:

The reusable, foldable shopping bag I bought in Singapore, but you can buy them online.  Any reusable bag will work. 

Of course you don't have to be on your way to an exotic location to use these tools - they're great for everyday use! 

Trekking the Annapurna Circuit, Himalayas, Nepal

Let me just preface this by saying that I had no idea what I would be getting myself into with this whole trekking thing. I have lived at sea level for the past decade and in no way trained for this experience. But it's Nepal and trekking is pretty much the top tourist magnet here. Turns out, it's totally worth the hype. 

DAY 1 / KATHMANDU - POKHARA

The first leg of the trip involved a six hour bus ride from Khatmandu to Pohkara.  Fellow trekkers Julienne from Canada, Deepak from Singapore and Julienne's Nepalese guide, Babu were on the bus as well. These busses go back and forth every day taking tourists to realize their dreams of seeing some Himalayan mountain tops. The busses are all labeled "TOURIST" in huge letters on the front windshield but if the bus is not full upon departure, it picks up and drops off locals in between. In addition to these, we had three longer stops, one for a toilet break (think holes in the ground, not your cushy rest stops in the US), one stop for breakfast and one for lunch. 

 Lakeside Sunset in Pokhara

Lakeside Sunset in Pokhara

After arriving in Pokhara, a driver took us and all our luggage to our hotel called Third Pole. Pokhara is a lovely, lakeside town that is just as touristy as Kathmandu but much cleaner, calmer and quieter. Julienne and I walked and talked around the lake before meeting back at the hotel where Kumar, my and Deepak's guide was waiting. We all then walked along the lake again and after passing on a few restaurants for various reasons, we ended up at a Tibetan restaurant, starving and ready to eat the table and chairs. The service was probably the slowest I've ever had in my life and the whole experience took over two hours. The Tibetan bread was amazing but everything else was meh. 

DAY 2 / POKHARA - NAYAPOL

The following morning, Deepak and I combined a few things into my rucksack and met adorable, young porter named Subus. Now that our six person group was complete, we left Pokhara via van around 9:30 AM. 

It was a rather perilous road trip up the mountain. The roads are in desperate need of repair in many places. Our guides said the India trade embargo is one reason the roads are not being maintained. The air is very hazy and often obscures the view. No doubt air pollution from the cities in Nepal, China and India sadly drifts and settles here. 

NAYAPOL - TIKHEDUNGA

The car dropped us off in a small village called Nayapol. We walked on a rocky road for about an hour and a half before stopping at a roadside cafe for lunch. Apparently it takes a minimum of 1 hour to get your food. I'm assuming they cook everything from scratch. I thoroughly enjoyed my ginger tea and veg momo; steamed dumplings stuffed with basil, onion, carrot and mystery greens with a pink dipping sauce of tomato/garlic/spices. (Mo mo and dahl bhat are the two most common dishes on the trek, and in Nepal in general.) 

We walked another 45 min-hour and arrived at guest house around 4 PM. Since donkeys are the main mode of transportation up here, you have to constantly be on the lookout for piles of donkey crap on the steps and the trails. And you'll probably stop more than once to let a caravan of them pass by. 

I am eternally grateful to our adorable young porter for carrying my bag. I think this is the tipping point that is going to make me pack lighter from now on. 

The first guest house is simple but has clean looking linens, beds and hot showers. There were no outlets in the rooms so I have to charge my phone in the kitchen. So glad I didn't bring my GoPro and a bunch of other gadgets that would need charging. I decided to find a place to meditate before dinner. 

This really is luxury trekking. I enjoyed a hot shower (even too hot at times before I figured out the knobs) and a delicious dinner. I had Dahl bhat with rice, sautéed spinach and potatoes with hot ginger tea to drink. Afterwards, our guides surprised us with an artistically arranged plate of apple and orange slices surrounding a pile of pomegranate seeds in the middle. The food and fruit was deliciously austere. Julienne, Deepak and I conversed a bit more before bet and I think the two of us have persuaded him to commit to vegetarianism again. 

I picked up my phone from the power strip in the kitchen and went to my room, 105. I did my anti-rheumatic yoga series and some reading before snuggling up inside my sleeping bag for the night. 

 Stairs are just a daily part of life for the locals

Stairs are just a daily part of life for the locals

DAY 3 / TIKHEDUNGA - GHOREPANI

Day three was the most intense part of the trek. It was a 5.5 hour uphill battle against steep inclines and stone steps. I was part of a group of six - me, two other Trekkers, two Nepali guides and a porter - but the only person I was competing with was myself. I knew the only way to get through it was to go nonstop so for four hours from roughly 8 AM to exactly noon, so that's what I did. (I did have to pause briefly a few times to make way for a few caravans of transport donkeys to pass but I kept my feet moving.)  I had no idea how many steps there were ahead of or behind me and I had no sense of time. I was just completely focused on the next step. My unofficial mantra was "one more step." Because no matter where you are on the trail, there's always one more step. I felt incredibly present and so focused. We stopped for a lunch break at noon but after refueling on fried rice, I finished the remaining 1.5 hours the same way. 

My journey became a live tortoise and the hare parody. I kept trudging along at my glacial pace while my guide Kumar would hike up ahead of me, plop down on a rock, sometimes making a phone call or two or having a snack. I would walk by, gain a bit of ground and then he would catch up and overtake me again. Slow and steady finishes the race. I'm not guaranteeing you'll win, but you'll at least make it to the end. And that was my only goal: finishing. Also, by taking slow and mindful steps, I'm sure there was less impact/wear & tear on my joints so that should help prevent some future physical pain and suffering. 

A few thoughts wandered into my mind but I just acknowledged them and let them briskly pass by, like the German-speaking groups that whizzed past me with walking poles and large packs that were surely born and raised in the Alps. 

And even they are no big deal compared to the local Nepali people that hike up and down these steps like it's their job - because in most cases, it is. I passed a group of kids (or rather they passed me) that were practically sprinting down the stairs towards school in their uniforms. Which means they commute up and down these steps five days a week for probably at least a decade. And then there's the adults who carry heavy loads on their backs that are tethered around their foreheads while wearing flip flops. Not to mention how exponentially more work it is to build the steps in the first place than just to traverse them. These passing thoughts helped keep me motivated. After all, thousands of other people have completed this trek before me and thousands more will do it after I'm done. 

Our guides claim that we climbed over 3,000 steps toward the summit. Uneven, randomly spaced steps that were just flat rocks hammered into the dirt. But the only number that mattered to me was one. One more step. This little droplet of enlightenment really makes me excited to make trekking more of a regular habit. 

DAY 4 / GHOREPANI - POON HILL

I woke up early 4 AM to trek up to the summit of Poon Hill to watch the sun rise over Annapurna. You guessed it, more stairs. This time in the pre-dawn darkness and extremely packed with people. (The sunrise trek is somewhat of a bottleneck on the trail; this is the only time I encountered so many people at once during the trek.) 

Not to mention poor Julienne was sick and vomiting most of the morning but she's a rock star and still managed to reach the summit and trek to Tadapani later. The mighty mountains looked just as I had expected; jagged snow-capped peaks rising out of the mist. I saw a splash of color from the sunrise but it was mostly obscured by clouds. 

 VICTORY! Babu, Julienne, me, Deepak and Kumar

VICTORY! Babu, Julienne, me, Deepak and Kumar

GHOREPANI - TADAPANI 

 A typical Trek Brek: (Tibetan) Bread, eggs, potatoes, tea. 

A typical Trek Brek: (Tibetan) Bread, eggs, potatoes, tea. 

After breakfast, even more stairs led us into an enchanted-looking, fairytale forest. So many beautiful trees exploding with colorful blossoms, especially pink rhododendron. I got many more great views of those frosted peaks. I also finally gave in and got a walking stick, or rather, Kumar found one for me. It was such a relief and really helped me get up and down those steps and steep inclines. 

I saw a European family of four with an older porter carrying three full rucksacks lashed together on his back. Supposedly there are regulations that are supposed to limit the loads that porters carry, but I don't think they are really enforced. Just feels wrong to make one person bear that much weight, especially when most of it is probably crap you don't need in the first place. The family didn't seem all too concerned and trotted along between breaks to take pictures, hardly acknowledging their poor porter. 

Kumar and I arrived in Tadapani around 3 PM. I had to wait for Subus to arrive before I could take a hot, solar-powered shower. Then the temperature dropped and it was so, so cold that evening. The chill made me eat too much for dinner: Dahl bhat plus two ginger teas plus rice pudding plus fruit. I shivered myself to sleep, wearing two layers of clothes, socks, tucked inside my sleeping bag and under another blanket.

But what this guest house lacked in comfort, it made up for with consistent power and Internet. There was a big, loud German family that I passed on the trail that ended up staying the night here as well. Some of them even slept in a yellow tent outside instead of in the rooms. They could be annoying but I liked the fact that the kids were all interacting with each other, talking, playing cards, instead of being absorbed into electronic devices. They were even whittling away at their own walking sticks the next morning with legit hunting knives. What an awesome way to grow up. I hope they appreciate it. 

DAY 5 / TADAPANI - GHANDRUK 

Day five led us mostly down through a magical, mossy meadow. Sometimes I felt like I was in Middle Earth on a mission to take a ring to Mordor. Other times I felt like I was wandering through a pre-historic landscape and would surely discover dinosaurs around the corner at any given moment. 

We came upon a metropolis of karsts, or stacks of stones, that countless tourists had built and left using the smooth, flat stones in and around the river. They were everywhere in all shapes and sizes. Of course I had to stop and build a couple, myself. 

 My preciousssss (I kinda look like Smeagol/Gollum here with my karst)

My preciousssss (I kinda look like Smeagol/Gollum here with my karst)

Remember the amazing meal I had on the first trek day? I again ordered Mo Mo which this time only consisted of bitter greens and no other flavor except maybe some salt. I learned the hard way that while the menu is pretty much the same at all of the guesthouses along the way, the taste and quality is wildly inconsistent.After about an hour and a half more up and down hills with Stickly (as I named my walking stick) by my side, Kumar and I reached our destination for the day: Ghandruk. 

Our guesthouse in Ghandruk was by far the best place I've stayed in Nepal, period. The food was incredible and the rooms had all the luxuries: en suite toilets and showers and power outlets in the rooms and very few power cuts. It rained that evening which was a bummer at the time but helped to clear the air for spectacular view the following morning. 

 The amazing view from Ghandruk 

The amazing view from Ghandruk 

DAY 6 / GHANDRUK - NAYAPOL

While I was waiting for breakfast, a Tibetan refugee named Tenzing showed Deepak and I his arts and crafts for sale. He said that he has a wife and two children living in a refugee camp and so I was a bit guilted into buying a black onyx bracelet bearing a white Om symbol from him for 300 rupees (about $3 USD). Not to get too political, but it's pretty terrible how China annexed Tibet and is basically eradicating their amazing and unique culture. And even worse how most of the world doesn't seem to care because it doesn't affect the global economy. Sigh. 

The trek back from Ghandruk was almost all downhill. I passed countless villages and reveled in the sight of people going about their daily lives: herding goats, working the fields, hanging fresh laundry, cooking and weaving baskets. I greeted pretty much everyone with a friendly "Namaste" and often got the same response. 

Our group reached the last tourist checkpoint and crossed the bridge to a guest house for lunch. The clouds were closing in ominously around us and we knew the rain would start soon. We ate quickly, put rain covers on our packs and rain jackets on ourselves and double timed it towards Nyapol. We reached a covered shop just as big, fat raindrops were starting to fall. We waited a while for the storm to blow over but it was still a wet, slow ride down the mountain. The bags that had been tied to the roof on the way up, now had to be stored inside on laps since the rain refused to stop. We arrived back at the same hotel in Pokhara about two hours later. That night Deepak, Julienne and I gladly indulged with a pizza each for dinner at a super touristy spot called The Godfather. So worth it.

DAY 7 / POKHARA - KATHMANDU

We were packed, fed and back on the TOURIST bus by 7:30 AM. Again we stopped at several random spots to pick up locals and had short breaks for breakfast and lunch. Then we got stuck in a massive traffic jam on the mountain back to Kathmandu since there is only one road in and one road out. There was no AC on the bus but the fans worked sometimes. I'm pretty sure there was one truck broken down about half way up the mountain that both lanes had to take turns detouring around. This return trip totaled almost 9 hours, 3 hours longer than the previous trip. Once we were finally freed, I had to say some hasty goodbyes and catch a cab out to my next destination/adventure: a workaway homestay in a village called Changu Narayan. 

 Panoramic view from Poon Hill

Panoramic view from Poon Hill

I am very proud of this physical and mental accomplishment because for the past decade I have lived at almost zero elevation and have virtually no trekking experience. I completely credit my dedication to yoga and meditation with giving me the physical and mental strength to make it up this Himalayan Mountain. It's also the first time I feel like my sporadic meditation has had a noticeable effect on an otherwise unrelated aspect of my life. This of course makes me want to meditate more regularly. I actually did an hour's worth of sun salutations and other asanas (with emphasis on the hips) prior to and during the trek and I'm sure this helped me make it to the top. And every bit of effort was worth being able to see that spectacular sun rise over those famous, jagged, snow-capped peaks.