A peek into the highlights of visiting Copenhagen, Denmark with my sister.
Yesterday I attended my first meetup.com group event: a morning tour of Craggy Gardens in the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina. If you're not familiar with this site, I recommend checking it out to find and connect with people that share your interests.
It took an hour and a half for me to get to the Craggy Pinnacle trailhead, but was totally worth it. You have to travel along the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is one of the most scenic, slow & winding roads I've ever traversed. I happened to have my phone set up to get some video footage of this journey and couldn't believe I saw a baby bear cub climb a guard rail and sprint across the pavement in front of me as fast as his bear legs could carry him, let alone that I got it on video.
I also like long drives because I get more uninterrupted time to listen to audiobooks. In this case, I listened to Jung by Anthony Stevens which explains in four hours the basic life and philosophy of Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung, which was fascinating.
I arrived a bit early and admired the vast, blue rolling landscape swirling with mist. It dawned on my why this area is referred to as the Smoky Mountains.
Altogether there were about 15 in the group (all older than me) led by Jennifer (my age), who just finished a Phd related to botany and biology. She dropped some serious knowledge on us about the natural and cultural history of the area and identified & discussed lots of native (and non-native) flora.
The trail itself was a really easy hike. I saw lots of families with small children and/or dogs doing the 1.4 mile roundtrip trek. Tip: Use the restrooms at the visitor's center BEFORE you hike.
Y'all don't even know how excited I am for the annual autumn foliage since I was stuck in a Fall-less Florida for the past decade. I fully intend to visit the mountains as often as I can and immerse myself in the natural beauty. I swear some of the leaves had changed just during the few hours between when I drove and drove back down. It's cool to get reacquainted with the general vicinity of where I grew up.
If you haven't been up Asheville, NC, the Blue Ridge Parkway or explored the myriad trails therein, I highly recommend it, especially now!
Namaste, friends! I hope you enjoy my review of the Mahaparinirvan Express (Buddhist Circuit Train) tour that I thoroughly enjoyed in March 2016.
This is a train-based tour that takes you through significant Buddhist places and landmarks throughout Northern India and Nepal. It's a pilgrimage of sorts, but more historical than spiritual I think. They operate several 8-day tours between September and March. The train departs from the Delhi Safdar Jung station and includes the following destinations:
Gaya • Bodhgaya • Rajgir • Nalanda • Gaya • Varanasi • Sarnath • Varanasi • Gorakhpur • Kushinagar • Lumbini • Gorakhpur • Gonda • Sravasti • Gonda • Agra (Taj Mahal) • Delhi.
You have three accommodation options:
AC First Coupe: private berth with four beds and a door for just two people
AC First Class: same private berth but I guess you might have roommates
AC 2nd Tier: recessed berths with four beds and curtains; also beds along the aisle
It's like a hostel on wheels. I was fine with AC 2nd tier because pretty much all you do on the train is eat and sleep. I had a wonderful roommate named Jyotsna who is a retired English teacher so we communicated quite easily.
Luckily our train car was relatively empty and the bunks above us and across the aisle were vacant. The aircon worked well, perhaps too well, but I love snuggling up in blankets when its a little chilly.
The bunks are a bit short. I'm 5'9" (175 cm) and my feet just barely hang over the edge. The sheets were always clean and comfortable and the food was good, albeit a bit on the spicy side. They always offer your choice of a meaty meal or vegetarian meal. You will also spend a few nights in hotels. I recommend bringing earplugs and a sleep mask and digestive supplements/aids if you're not used to Indian food.
We were greeted with marigold garlands and traditional, live music. The train departed a bit later than planned. I was one of only a handful of Westerners on this trip: three Americans, one Brit, one German and one Mexican. Everyone else is Indian or Asian (Hong Kong, China, Japan, Korea).
Since you will be touring many historically holy sites that require you to be barefoot, I recommend wearing flip flops or sandals that you can easily slip on and off. You should also dress comfortably conservative; in other words, covered knees and shoulders.
Our guide, Ram, accompanied us and gave us insight (in English) at each location. Our first stop was Bodhgaya, where Prince Siddartha attained enlightenment while sitting under the Bodhi tree. (You are not allowed to bring a phone inside and have to check it at the entrance but I assure you it will be there when you get back.) I bought mala beads made of bodhi nuts here and wore them for the rest of the tour. Next we stopped in Rajgir, where the new Buddha (translation: teacher) delivered his first sermon. There are breathtaking views if you hike up to the top of the hill.
The next day, we visited Sarnath before traveling to Varanasi, the most holy city in India situated on the Ganges river. We had some free time, which I spent mostly in a tuk tuk with two other ladies on the tour before we all piled into a boat to see a traditional fire ceremony at sunset (along with about a bazillion other boats).
Although you do spend many hours (mostly sleeping) on the train, you will still spend plenty of time on a tour bus, too. (I tried to make the most of it by meditating or attempting to meditate while in transit.) This includes crossing the border to Lumbini, Nepal (Budddha's birthplace in 623 BC) so it's helpful to have a visa for Nepal before you start the trip, but you can also acquire it pretty easily at said border. A 30-day multiple entry visa for Nepal is $40 USD.
The fourth major stop on the tour was Kushinagar, where the Buddha attained enlightenment (or where his body died). There was an odd shaped structure housing a giant, reclining Buddha statue here. We also visited Gorakhpur and had dinner on the train.
A word of caution. Of course the most touristy areas are flooded with beggars and vendors. It's really not a good idea to give the beggars money, especially the children because you never know if they're being coerced or exploited. So exercising the Buddhist values of compassion and kindness, I and a few other travelers did buy and give them fruit sometimes. The vendors sell all kinds of trinkets and they expect you to haggle. If you buy even a small item from one vendor, the others will immediately pounce on you and try to convince you to buy their things as well.
Our last stop was the most famous landmark in India: the Taj Mahal, located in Agra. Our train was stuck waiting on the tracks so we didn't get a ton of time here but it was more than enough to take an obligatory Taj selfie (or several).
I'll never forget this insightful tour, the sights & sounds, the people I experienced this with and the melodic chanting I heard so often that will always bring back pleasant memories of my time exploring and experiencing the roots of Buddhism in Northern India: Buddham... Saranam... Gacchami...
Here's a quick video trailer I made with my film from the tour:
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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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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. -_-
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
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.
Bern roughly translates to Bears. And you will see them all over the city.
Established 12th Century.
Capital of Switzerland since 1848.
UNESCO World Heritage Area: Altstadt = Old Town.
Situated on the Aare River.
Arrive Bern Banhoff (train station) center of town. FREE map at the tourist info shop at the station.
City is very walkable:
Follow the flags & fountains downhill.
FREE water! Fill your water bottle/drink out of the fountains!
Pause to admire Einstein's house.
Continue, cross small bridge.
Walk up steep hill to the Rose Garden (FREE):
Flowers blooming, birds chirping, panoramic view of the city; serene, botanical bliss!
Walk downhill toward big bridge.
Bärengraben = Bear Pits (FREE)
5,000 square meter waterfront enclosure. (I usually don't support animal captivity but the bears seem healthy & happy.)
Kunst Art Museum near train station; 7 CHF entry for permanent collection including Matisse, Dali, Picasso, Anker, Degas, Monet & more.
NOT TO BE CONFUSED WITH Kunsthalle Art Gallery across Kirchenfeldbrücke bridge which is a disappointing ripoff. -_-
Tibits Vegetarian Restaurant: $$$ Expensive buffet, pay by weight, beverages particularly pricey (learned the hard way.)
Cheapest to eat at Migros or similar supermarkets/kiosks.
Gurten mountain day-trip 25 minutes by tram
Switzerland is really expensive so I try to save money wherever I can.
Arrive bus or plane (HEH)
Mandatory entry fee: 12,500 kyat / $11 USD
Inle Lake is large: 44.9 sq mi (116 km2).
Small, clean, quiet town. Many hotels/guest houses (best for pairs or groups) but only one hostel (best for single travelers)
Capsule beds (my favorite!) $12/night, free breakfast, free snacks, great staff, free bicycles, air con, NO wifi yet
Must see: Inle Lake Boat Tour
Local market, monastery, floating gardens, stilt villages, local life, canoeing, bridge; also stops at shops: lotus fabric weaving, cheroot cigar making, silver smith. Organized through the hostel & cost 15,000 kyat/$12 USD including sunrise, breakfast, lunch for 12 hours. (Do a shorter, cheaper tour by just hiring your own boat for the day.)
Can trek for a couple days from Kalaw in the mountains. Explore Inle area by bike or foot.
Bamboo Delight Cooking Class
20,000 kyat / $17
Meet/shop at local market (busiest on Fridays). Choose traditional dishes from a list of options; they accommodate diet restrictions like vegetarian & peanut allergy. Very well organized, staff is always smiling! Food was so fresh and tasty! Surprise goody bags with spices at the end. Part of proceeds support education for local children.
Seven of us boarded a public bus late Saturday morning. Our destination: Galle Fort which is located on the Southern tip of Sri Lanka several km below Ambalangoda. It was first built by the Portuguese in 1588 then was extensively fortified by the Dutch starting in 1649. But, it dates all the way back to 125-150 AD when it was a busy trading port used by Greece, China and several Arab nations. Today it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site and a popular tourist destination.
It took us over an hour to get there since the bus stopped so many times but I was glad we had seats because the closer we got to the city, the more people had to stand in the aisle. We saw the massive stone walls from the bus station and once inside, it’s a bustling little multicultural town with narrow streets lined with shops, hotels, restaurants, temples, mosques, churches and still maintains a lot of distinctive Dutch architecture. But don’t come here expecting any bargains, like you’ll find most other places in the country. The prices are pretty comparable to a mid-sized European city. You can drop a lot of dough here on a fancy hotel, fine dining and shopping if you want to.
Luckily, one of the girls in the group had already been to Galle and had already scoped out several places within our price range. We first walked around the perimeter of the Fort and took tons of pictures. Then we made our way in towards the town. We detoured to admire a Buddhist temple and then stopped at a small house where Lianne got a lovely Henna tattoo on her wrist from a talented, local lady who banged it out in less than 5 minutes.
We had planned to eat lunch after that at the Lucky Fort Restaurant which was hidden behind some tropical foliage, but it was still another 30 minutes before they were officially open. So we walked around a bit more to kill some time and stumbled upon the post office where I bought some more stamps, and then we discovered the Mecca of postcards, also known as Stick No Bills. I had an immediate design-gasm once I stepped inside and was surrounded by all the well-designed, vintage-inspired travel and movie posters/postcards scattered throughout the store. Even though they weren’t cheap, I knew I would buy some and immediately regretted all the other postcards I’d purchased thus far in Sri Lanka.
A poster cost 2,500 rupees ($18.68 USD), which included a bulletproof poster tube, and the postcards cost 350 ($2.61) rupees for one, 1,000 $7.47) rupees for 3 or 3,000 ($22.42 or $$2.24/ea) rupees for 10. I opted for the motherload and agonized over which ten I would pick. I took pictures of all the ones I bought as well as the ones I liked but didn’t buy, which was nearly 80 photos total. This was the first place I’ve been able to use a credit card since I arrived in the country three weeks ago so I obliged. (I just hope Citi doesn’t flag it as a fraudulent charge and freeze my account since my card has been idle for so long.)
We returned to the Lucky Fort Restaurant (which is ranked no. 2 out of 155 restaurants in Galle on Trip Advisor) and had to push a few smaller tables together to accommodate the group because the place was packed. Their special feature was rice and a selection of 10 curries (9 of which were vegetarian) for 950 rupees per couple ($7.10 USD or or $3.55 per person) including free refills of your favorites. Six of us ordered the special and the seventh ordered fried rice, so everything worked out pretty well. We passed the bowls around the table and ate family style. Here were the curries, in order of my most to least favorite: Pumpkin Curry, Pineapple Curry, Aubergine Curry, Dahl (Lentil) Curry, Fried Potato Curry, Cucumber Curry, Water Spinach Curry, Cabbage Curry, Snakeground Curry, Chicken Curry. With the exception of the last two which I didn’t actually eat, this was the most amazing curry I’ve ever put in my mouth. This is how Sri Lankan food is supposed to taste, unlike the cheap, watered down food we are served at the beach house.
Feeling fat and happy, we were off again to burn a few more calories exploring the Fort and the shops. There are some really nice, trendy shops with clothes, jewellery and souvenirs on par with my Stick No Bills postcards, both in terms of design and price. One of my favorites was an eclectic shop called Zehan & Shazna Elite Boutique, which housed some super cute, hand-stitched clothes branded as Fort Lace. I seriously considered buying a dress but they were priced at about $40 USD and up and I feel like my rusksack is already full to the point of bursting the seams so I exercised all my willpower and resisted, although I really wanted to support this creative local business. There was another shop with a visual feast called The Three by tpv which reminded me of a hybrid between Anthropologie and West Elm.
We were thoroughly exhausted around 5 PM so we headed back to the bus station. We thought we were getting on an Express bus that would take us back to Ambalangoda faster, and we snagged some of the last seats available. Mine was the first seat near the front entrance, which kept me from feeling claustrophobic at the cost of my physical safety. The bus already seemed to be at capacity when we left Galle, but somehow, more and more people sardine-d themselves on board. I had a variety of crotches, butts and oversized purses in my face throughout the trip. At first, there were some Sri Lankan music videos playing on the lone screen at the front of the bus, which I could see if I craned my neck the right way. They all seemed to be the same, somewhat depressing plot of a love triangle or unrequited love. Eventually they stopped, so I stared past the old man next to me who was enjoying a snooze with mouth agape, to stare at the waves that were racing us up the coastline. At one point, the driver slammed on the breaks, and I took (what I’m pretty sure was) an elbow to the cerebellum. It really hurt and I turned around to find the culprit, but no one apologized. The most likely candidate was a slightly douche-y-looking younger guy standing in the aisle right behind me, pre-occupied by his phone, who could be a Sri Lankan Bro, if there is such a thing. My toes also got stepped on several times and I narrowly escaped getting whacked in the head by the purses passing by, their owners oblivious to the pain they could potentially inflict.
I don’t know if this bus was actually faster, but I was ecstatic to finally reach our destination and exit the bus, which was still bound for Colombo. Being packed onto public transport is just a necessary part of backpacking abroad, but I’ve never been more appreciative of my little Mirazda waiting for me in the driveway back home.
We went to the ATM and Food City (grocery store) and then back to the house for dinner. Since all the Dutch girls were leaving in the morning, we went to Hiro’s Ice Cream parlor again for a final round of sundaes and banana splits.
The next morning, there were only four of us left in the house, with myself becoming the longest staying matriarch of sorts. That is, until the train from Kandy showed up around 11 AM and we were flooded with new arrivals. I already miss the amazing group of friends that I made last week.
Since we only work in the morning on Fridays, three other girls and I decided to spend the afternoon in another town called Bentota. We piled into a tuk tuk and headed north. We weren’t 100% sure where the town was or what it looked like but our driver dropped us off on the side of the road between the beach and some buildings a few kilometers after we passed a sign that said Bentota on it. Some locals directed us west toward the ‘city center’ so we walked in that direction, and soon realized we were being followed. An older gentleman in a sarong, button down shirt and flip-flops offered to take us to the temple, which he said was just down the road.
We were very cautious and hesitant. I thought about it as we walked and decided he was either going to murder us in the woods, or actually take us to the temple and ask for a tip afterwards. We gambled on the latter, and after walking about 30 minutes through the jungle, we did, indeed arrive at a temple, which may or may not be the Galapatha Raja Maha Vihare Buddhist temple. (I couldn’t find anything identifying it in English at the site so I Googled it later.) I could tell the structure was very old but the interior was immaculately maintained and boasted beautiful tile, several colorful murals from floor to ceiling and a ginormous Sleeping Buddha statue with intricately patterned & painted feet. Of course at the end of our tour, we were asked to leave a donation for the temple so we each put 100 rupees through the slot in the wooden box that is intended for that purpose.
After that, our guide (who never actually shared his name) led us to the lagoon, where we boarded a traditional flat canoe-type boat which he and one other man rowed for us with long, thin, wooden paddles. We asked the cost up front and he quoted us $1,000 rupees each (about $7.50 USD) which seemed a little steep, but we were kind of a captive audience because we didn’t know how else to get to the city. It ended up being a pretty nice ride that lasted close to an hour. We paddled around mangroves and along the shore of the lagoon, where I noticed the nicest houses I’ve seen yet in Sri Lanka. Our guide told us that many Europeans live here, so that explains the more lavish residences. We saw some snakes and some monitor lizards along the way before being dropped off at a vacant marketplace, which comes alive on Mondays only.
We paid for the lagoon cruise and walked into what we assumed to be the city center since the street was lined with shops and the streets were full of people and various vehicles. This is where we and our guide parted ways, after he asked for a tip as I had expected. We gave him close to $1,000 rupees total, confident that he also got a cut of fee for the ‘cruise’ for which he had recruited us. He thanked us and claimed to have three children, for which he was going buy for for with said compensation. Who knows if this was true or not, but even though we got a bit taken advantage of as somewhat naive tourists, I think both parties benefitted from the "impromptour." We got see some sights that we had no idea were there and he made some money. Plus, it was super sustainable since we walked the whole time and the boat was people-powered.
We were the only tourists around so everyone was hollering at us to come into their shops. We browsed a few before starting a new mission to find food. Another, younger local that looked to be around our age approached us and promised to take us to the best restaurant in town. We figured ‘what the heck’ and made sure to check the menu before deciding to actually eat at the restaurant, which had a pretty nice view overlooking the river. One girl has seafood and the rest of us reveled in the simple yet satisfying familiarity of our sandwiches and fries.
We decided to save some money and take a train back to the beach house but had some trouble finding the station. It was getting dark and we gave up on hoofing it finally just found a tuk tuk to take us to the station for about 100 rupee. Turns out, we had missed our turn and walked too far. The train ticket was only $50 rupees each and I am very impressed with their thick, letterpress-style tickets! We were a bit confused, though, because we were at the Aluthgama station, when we were supposed to be in Bentota. When the train finally arrived about half an hour later, the first station we passed was Bentota, so we hypothesized that our driver had intentionally driven us too far in order to benefit his buddy that took us on our tour - but we can’t confirm this theory.
We got back to the house in time for dinner then went out for ice cream downtown before calling it a night.