Stones and Bones of the Alentejo

Castle of Arraiolos

Castle of Arraiolos

Driving through the Alentejo, it’s one of those experimental travel days when we leave our itinerary entirely up to choice and chance. The only thing we know for sure is that we need to reach the Algarve by nightfall. What happens between now and then, here and there … who knows? Who cares? It’s a beautiful day in Portugal.

We arrive in Arraiolos, drawn to the town by its history of rug making. But first, we’re drawn to the decaying stone castle on the highest hill. We take a left turn and drive up to investigate.

A modest stone wall trims the hill around the Castle of Arraiolos. The wall feels proportional and reasonable — as if the architect was motivated more by aesthetics rather than fear. The castle was built between 1306 and 1315, and shows its age in partial walls and missing cornices. A few beautiful details remain like the keyhole window and castle keep. According to the plaque at the entrance, D. Nuno Alvares Pereira, a Portuguese commander who was eventually beatified and canonised, lived here at some point during his life.

We get back in the car and roll on down the hill to Arraiolos. It’s a sleepy town. None of the shops are open yet but we arrive at the central plaza where a gaggle of men is stationed along a bench, ready for whatever the day brings.

We walk to the Arraiolos Rug Interpretation Center which tells the story of the region’s history of rug making from the 16th to 19th centuries. Arraiolos rugs are hand-embroidered rather than woven, with a thinner profile than traditional carpets. Early Arraiolos rug designs were influenced by Oriental and Persian carpets but this was followed by a transitional design period in the 17th century. According to the Center, “Arraiolos embroidery was always a freely practiced craft that fell between the scholarly oriental form and the popular concept influenced by local traditions and artistic freedom.” Arraiolos rug making nearly died out in the late 1800s but visual artist José Queiroz revived the craft through classes and a dedicated workshop in Évora which resulted in new appreciation and demand for Arraiolos rugs that still exists today.

One of the most interesting things about the Arraiolos Rug Interpretation Center is what was found underneath and outside of it. The plaza became the subject of an archaeological dig when a centuries-old dying complex was discovered just below the surface. As you can see in the photo above, large circular vats were used to dye the wool for the rug embroidery. The dying vats have since been covered up and in their place is a decorative stone mosaic.

Cork trees in the Alentejo, Portugal

Cork trees in the Alentejo, Portugal

Back in the car, we aim for Évora but yet again we’re intrigued by what we see on the map. We make a few quick turns down a few small roads and arrive at a cork tree forest. I’ve never seen a cork tree before. Mature and evenly spaced, the trees have wide, wandering canopies above their trunks which have been stripped of their bark. The bark regenerates every 8-10 years, making it a sustainable resource. Portugal is the wine industry’s leading cork supplier, exporting a quantity valued at more than US $1 billion in 2016.

Just past the cork trees, we arrive at Cromeleque dos Almendres. This place is a bit of a mystery — kind of like Stonehenge. It’s a megalithic complex with 95 granite stones set in a circular arrangement, possibly related to the vernal equinox and winter solstice. The stones were placed between 6,000 and 3,000 B.C. Truly ancient! I had no idea that such a place existed in Portugal. The countryside is loaded with history.

We arrive in Évora and park the car just inside the fortress wall. Walking into the town center we come to the Igreja de Santo Antão. A Canterbury cross marks the front entrance of this 16th century church. The vaulted interior suspends elegant chandeliers above a beautiful runner extending through the nave.

We stop for lunch at Café Alentejo. This is not grab-and-go cuisine for tourists. This local hangout has a cozy interior where an afternoon could easily slip by with the help of a couple bottles of Portuguese wine. I decide to be adventurous and try the fish casserole — a stick-to-the-ribs dish that could feed an entire family.

Ceramics are everywhere in southern Portugal and as we wander Évora’s streets we see lots of colorful pieces with intricate patterns and signs of Moorish influence in geometric patterns.

We arrive at the Cathedral of Évora. Initially built in the late 12th century, the cathedral has been the subject of continual architectural additions during the centuries since then.

The cathedral’s full mass becomes evident as we climb the stairs to the rooftop terrace and lantern tower — the highest point of Évora. We descend to the cloisters and view the grandeur of the main chapel. My own faith is of no particular type or description, but I never tire of experiencing the magnificence of divine spaces such as this.

Back on the streets of Évora, we hurry to see one more sight before it closes for the day: Capela dos Ossos. This is one of Évora’s most popular sights but I haven’t read much about it or prepared myself for what we’re about to see. The art museum is nice, but the 16th century chapel below it is a rather creepy experience.

Capela dos Ossos is an ossuary. The bones and skulls of more than 5,000 people are stacked and stuck at every turn, even lining the arches of the vaulted ceiling. I can’t imagine that any of the people whose bones and skulls are here would have expected this to be their final resting place. The purpose of the ossuary isn’t entirely clear, at least from what I’ve read about it.  It may have been built to encourage self-reflection about our mortality or it may have been a solution to overflowing graveyards of the time. Either way, I feel lucky I can walk out of here, unlike so many others.

It’s late in the afternoon so we find an outdoor cafe near Evora’s stunning relic of a Roman temple, where we stop for a cold beer and contemplate the scenes of the day — including this poem at Capela dos Ossos (translated by Father Carlos Martins):

Where are you going in such a hurry traveler?
Stop … do not proceed;
You have no greater concern,
Than this one: that on which you focus your sight.

Recall how many have passed from this world,
Reflect on your similar end,
There is good reason to reflect
If only all did the same.

Ponder, you so influenced by fate,
Among the many concerns of the world,
So little do you reflect on death;

If by chance you glance at this place,
Stop … for the sake of your journey,
The more you pause, the further on your journey you will be.

Architecture Culture

Azulejo and Zellige

Azulejo and zellige. I know, readers! These are tough words to get your mind and mouth around. But they’re relevant terms if you’re traveling through Portugal, Spain and Morocco which is what I did last April and May. Before I share a bunch of new posts with you about this region of the world, it’s important to understand the meaning and history behind these two related words. You’re going to see azulejos mostly in my photography of Portugal, zellige mostly in my photography of Spain and Morocco, and the influence and presence of both throughout my photography of the whole region. So let’s get it all started at the Museu Nacional do Azulejo (National Tile Museum) in Lisbon, Portugal.

Queen Leonor's Chapel, The National Tile Museum

Queen Leonor’s Chapel, The National Tile Museum

The building that is now the tile museum was originally the Convent of the Mother of God (Madre de Deus), founded in 1509 by Leonor, Queen Consort of Portugal. Through the centuries, tile was brought to the convent for decoration but little of it was applied to the interior. In the 1950s, the convent was annexed by the National Museum of Ancient Art to house its ceramic displays (along with tiles that were already stored at the convent) and eventually the annex became the National Tile Museum.

The museum tells the history of decorative tile that likely originated in North Africa in the 13th century and reached across the Gibraltar Strait into Spain and then Portugal in the 15th and 16th centuries. Initially, decorative tiles may have been a reaction against horror vacui — fear of the empty, a Greek term that has been applied to numerous styles and periods of art.

Moorish influence on early azulejos

Moorish influence on early azulejos

The museum offers this definition of azulejo: From the Arab word azzelij or al zuleycha, which means ‘small polished stone’, refers to a ceramic piece, usually squared, with one side glazed. Zellige is a similar Arabic word, meaning “mosaic,” particularly with geometric tiles of the style seen throughout Morocco. Because zellige is a form of Islamic art, its designs are purely geometric with no portrayal of living things. In contrast, the azulejos found throughout Portugal are painted with patterns, design motifs and scenes of life.

The National Tile Museum :: Lisbon, Portugal

The process of Azulejo

The National Tile Museum holds a historic collection of azulejos, assembled in vignettes on the walls and also applied throughout the former convent’s church, chapel and cloisters. A display case at the entrance of the exhibition explains the process of making azulejo: A tile is cut from a slab of raw clay; one side is covered with a layer of powdered glass and tin-oxide; a line drawing is made on tracing paper; the paper is flipped over and pricked along the lines with a sharp instrument; the pricked tracing paper is placed over the tile and brushed with powdered charcoal to transfer the line drawing onto the tile in a process called pouncing; a rabbit’s tail erases any charcoal mistakes; the tile is painted with color and fired at a very high temperature to create the saturated, polychrome beauty of the finished piece.

The National Tile Museum :: Lisbon, Portugal

Azulejos were sometimes assembled together to look like tapestries, known as tapete (carpets). In the 15th and 16th centuries, the azulejo color palette was limited to blue, yellow, brown, green and white. In the 17th century, the color trend turned toward a simplified blue and white palette in the style of Chinese porcelain which was popular around the world.

The museum is arranged chronologically which helps with understanding how tile design, color and illustration evolved over centuries. The AzLab, an organization of the museum, is working to identify, date and catalog the vast tile designs of homes, buildings and churches throughout the country. AzLab also has a great interactive timeline of important examples in the history of azulejos. Only some of Portugal’s tiled works of art have been signed by the artists, several of whom were master oil and ceiling painters: António de Oliveira Bernardes, Manuel dos Santos and António Pereira.

Nossa Senhora da Vida, 1580

Nossa Senhora da Vida, 1580

Scene from the Hunting Room

Scene from the Hunting Room

Lisbonne au Mille Couleurs, 1992

Lisbonne au Mille Couleurs, 1992

The National Tile Museum :: Lisbon, Portugal

Crates of tiles are stacked along the interior hallways of the museum and restoration appears to be ongoing. What a huge job to reconstruct the tiled history of an entire nation, one small square at a time from the past 400+ years.

The Manueline Cloister is beautifully decorated in 19th century tiles with a diamond pattern which complements the arched ceiling.

The Church of Madre de Deus is a surprise within the tile museum, a remnant from the former days of the convent. Gilded at every glance, it’s a vibrant expression of a Baroque Portuguese interior. Upstairs the Chapel of St. Anthony is similarly covered in opulent paintings.

Ending the museum tour, the Great Panorama of Lisbon wraps half of the room in a blue and white pictorial of the city before the devastating earthquake of 1755. Each tile is delicately painted with detail showing homes, ships, life along the coast and scenes from the countryside.

Manueline Cloister and 19th century tiles

Manueline Cloister and 19th century azulejos

Traveling this region that straddles the Strait of Gibraltar is like taking a visual safari through the worlds of azulejos and zellige. Colorful and intricate, one cannot walk much more than a block or an alley’s length without stopping to admire the beauty of so many tiles and mosaics, as you’ll see in my upcoming posts.

If you’ve ever tiled a floor then you know the painstaking, backbreaking effort it takes to properly cut, mortar, assemble and grout a tiled surface — even with power tools, let alone manually as in past centuries. So it’s pretty easy to conclude that in the heyday of azulejos and zellige, beauty and craftsmanship must have been valued tremendously in spite of the time and pain involved in creating these works of art. No wonder the WINE of the region is so good and such an important part of Portugal’s culture! Saúde!

Culture Miscellaneous

Short Stories from Mumbai

Gate of India, Mumbai

Gate of India, Mumbai

Last month, spending ten days in Mumbai left such a powerful lasting impression that I haven’t written a word here since I returned. Not since Peru in 1999 and Cambodia in 2010 has a destination left me so deep in thought, so totally at a loss for words. The emotions I feel and the questions I have alternate between hope and despair. I would guess that if you’ve spent any time in Mumbai you might feel the same. Mumbai is undeniably a productive and thriving city, rich in culture and humanity. But the pace of its growth and the dire state of its infrastructure is a foreboding juxtaposition.

Traveling through a metropolitan area with more than 20 million people shoves all the associated problems right in your face — transportation, jobs, waste, sanitation and pollution among them. I couldn’t help but compare and contrast Mumbai with Tokyo — a larger city with a far more robust infrastructure accommodating a metropolitan population of more than 38 million. These are two of the world’s largest cities but they are vastly different in their complexions. Tokyo is clean and efficient, with an underlying etiquette that maintains control. Mumbai is dirty and loud, with a relentless bustle that cannot be avoided. But in the middle of it all, glimpses of beauty are everywhere — like the architecture of Victoria Terminus or the care taken in displaying a basket of vegetables.

Streets of Mumbai, India

Streets of Mumbai, India

Mark Twain said, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness…” I think travel is also fatal to judgement. For everything I saw and experienced in Mumbai, I have no judgement. I think the people of Mumbai are doing the very best they can in the conditions they’re living in, some of which are heartbreaking. The people I met were lovely — curious, engaging, gracious and smiling. And they’re brilliant at dealing with horrendous traffic (and an unexpected currency crisis!) with grace and compromise. Try taking a taxi from the Gate of India to Powai around 7:00 p.m. (with no small change!) and you’ll see what I mean.

From the broadest perspective, Mumbai scared me. At the closest interactions, Mumbai endeared me. These are the short stories in between.


Finding Myself in Dharavi

If you’ve seen Slumdog Millionaire, you probably know of Dharavi — Mumbai’s largest slum and one of the most densely populated places on the planet with between 700,000 to 1,000,000 residents in less than one square mile (2.1 sq. km). I toured some of Dharavi with Reality Tours. (Their tour is not for photography, only for education and they give back to Dharavi through Reality Gives.) At first thought, touring a slum might seem sad and exploitive but seeing Dharavi was one of the most enlightening experiences for me in Mumbai. Dharavi hums with productivity — from recycling (plastic mostly, sorted by color and melted into pellets) to pottery to the production of nearly all the poppadoms served in Mumbai. Trash is a huge problem in Mumbai and, were it not for the recycling happening in Dharavi, I can’t imagine how much worse it would be.

People living and working in Dharavi come from all over India, in search of good jobs and wages they can send home. The economic output of Dharavi is more than USD $500 million annually. Hazardous working conditions leave a lot to be desired, but many jobs in Dharavi are coveted and kept in the family. For instance, if a man from Himal Pradesh who works in scrap metal suddenly needs to go home, he’ll send a family member to take his place until he can return.

Upon seeing Dharavi, I saw hope along with the universal human desire for a decent life no matter the challenges. As Maya Angelou said, “We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”


Dhobi Ghat

Proof that there is order to the chaos of Mumbai, Dhobi Ghat is the city’s largest manually powered laundromat. Viewed from a bridge at the south side, Dhobi Ghat is a maze of concrete washing pens and a patchwork of sheets and clothing hanging out to dry. The complex is as fascinating for its size and function as it is for the life and labor within its walls. Kids play in the water, a dhobi brushes his teeth, mom watches the baby and somehow all those sheets and towels — sorted by color and washed by hand — find their way back to all the hotels and hospitals where they came from.


Photos at the Jain Temple

I stood in central Mumbai, admiring the detail of a new Jain temple constructed entirely of marble. Photos were not allowed, so I just stared for a few minutes while thinking about Jainism — all new to me. One of the main teachings of Jainism is non-violence, or ahimsa. Jains are strict vegetarians and also avoid eating root vegetables because they believe removing a plant by its root inflicts harm. Jains also try not to harm insects and even avoid traveling at night because if you can’t see insects, you can’t avoid harming them.

The man overseeing the temple must have appreciated my interest because he motioned that it was okay for me to take photographs. Sweet! But really, he mostly wanted me to take a photo of him and his buddies — some of whom were more willing than others. But the interest in having your picture taken? That’s also a pretty universal human desire. And if you can share the result in the display of your DSLR… even better.


Funny with Sunny

Sunny was my guide through Dharavi and I also  booked a private walking tour with him so I wouldn’t get lost in the mayhem of Mumbai while shooting photos. After a few hours at the Crawford Market (next post), flower market, sari market and seeing all the cows at Bombay Panjrapole, we hopped a cab back to our starting point. The taxi driver was super chatty (in Hindi), telling Sunny all about the drama of driving a taxi. Sunny turned to me and told me that his father is a taxi driver so he already knew all about this subject, so I taught Sunny a new English phrase: preaching to the choir.

The taxi driver turned his attention to me — “Madam” — in the backseat. He asked Sunny where I was from, then continued with a curious string of questions about Madam translated by Sunny. Are there trees where Madam is from? Do they grow crops where Madam is from? Does Madam eat rice? Do they grow rice where Madam is from? Most of it is imported, I told Sunny — an unexpected answer.

The driver was excited to have a translator in the car — he couldn’t speak much English or communicate with any tourists. He told Sunny that his conversations usually consisted of two sentences: How much to Colaba? Okay, go to Colaba. He told Sunny he wanted me to speak some Hindi so I read Sunny’s Hindi phrase card and did my best to get it right. We all had a good laugh.


Rajesh and the Rickshaw Rides

Upon walking down the driveway of the hotel on my first full day in Mumbai, a rickshaw driver stopped me and asked me where I was going.

“Down to the main street and turning right into the neighborhood.” I could see the neighborhood from my hotel room. It looked questionable but so did everything in Mumbai.

He pointed to his face and made a circle with his finger.

“You are white. Don’t go there.”

I had promised everyone that I would be careful in Mumbai and heed any warnings. This was a warning. Whether it was just to get me to ride in his rickshaw, I’ll never know. But I found out later that this driver — Rajesh — lived in that neighborhood so perhaps he was right in telling me to stay away.

Rajesh took me roundtrip to a more acceptable neighborhood (by his standards) and I took his number when I got back to the hotel. A couple days later I texted him about going to the Khaneri Caves (post coming soon). With rupees in such short supply, I negotiated in Canadian dollars and he picked me up the next morning. The caves were exceptional and when he dropped me back at the hotel I handed him two twenty dollar bills — the $35 we had agreed on, plus a tip for waiting for me throughout the five hour excursion.

Later that day I got a text.

“mam one peypar is crek.”

One of the plastic twenty dollar bills had a crack in it.

“Put clear tape one side. No problem in Canada.” I was flashing back to Myanmar where only pristine, crisp U.S. bills had been accepted when we were there. One tear or blemish rendered the bills unacceptable.

“ok mam i chak.”

“If problem, come back. I have only one more paper but can exchange with you.”

“okay mam i chak.then messages you.”

“OK. Leaving early morning for Goa!”

I didn’t want to leave him hanging. But the clear tape must have worked because I didn’t hear back from him until a week later.

“mam you back in mumbai?”

“Back in Canada!”

“mam any job in canada for me?”



Culture Miscellaneous
Trinidad, Cuba

Postcards From Trinidad

Trinidad, Cuba

The song accompanying this post is Hasta Siempre Comandante performed by Dúo Real, a guitar duo we listened to while dining on the outdoor deck at La Ceiba in Trinidad.

After Havana and Santiago de Cuba, we venture to Trinidad on another long ride through the countryside. Acres and acres of corn and sugarcane fields surround us on the road to the west coast. A few stops for lunch and coffee along the route allow us to see a way of life still rooted in the last century.

After experiencing the magnetism of Havana and the enthusiasm of Santiago de Cuba, venturing to Trinidad brings the chance to see another identity within this island full of personality. In the context of these three Cuban cities, we find Trinidad is the introvert — less inclined to chat us up with life and music on the street; more inclined to leave a lasting impression through quiet color and beauty.

Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad feels subdued, almost suburban, with mostly single-story shops and cobblestone streets that are easily explored on foot. The town is a UNESCO world heritage site with well-preserved architecture on a smaller, simpler scale than Havana. Trinidad is a big draw for tourism and it seems like we see more tourists here than we do anywhere else. This is good and bad — it may feel slightly more crowded than other towns, but Trinidad is accustomed to entertaining guests so there are lots of shops and restaurants to explore.

Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad, Cuba

The heart of Trinidad is the Plaza Mayor and the Church of the Holy Trinity. A wide stone staircase next to the church feels like Cuba’s version of the Spanish Steps — a social meeting point where you can grab some shade under a tree or a mojito from the bar on the corner.

The Church and Monastery of Saint Francis draw people up to the bell tower to have a look over Trinidad. As we discover on a morning walk, there are other, less crowded places to see the town from up above. We wander into a gallery where a volunteer guide shows us to the roof.

Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad, Cuba

Exploring Trinidad is less about what there is to do and more about what there is to see. It is one of the most visually expressive towns I’ve ever been to … where the color of a classic car may match the color of the home where it’s parked. Every photo is a postcard and the color combinations of the buildings enlighten my opinion of what goes together and what doesn’t. Everything here just seems to work. It even seems like the people who live here have subconsciously adopted this unique color blocking in the way they dress. Their shirts and pants give an extra dab of tertiary color to the streetscape.

We explore the markets around town, with embroidered tablecloths, woodcarvings, fans, jewelry and ubiquitous Che Guevara t-shirts for sale. We make a trade at one of the stalls — two carved wooden hummingbirds in exchange for J’s sunglasses.

We’ve come to realize that hats, sunglasses and pens — especially pens — are sought after all over Cuba. Here in Trinidad, I pass a home on a morning walk and the two elderly residents look at me from their front door while emphatically gesturing as if they’re writing on paper. I reach in my bag and give them a pen. They are elated with this simple gift. On an afternoon walk on the outskirts of Trinidad, a man asks J if he can have his hat. Sure! We have more hats. You take this one. Thumbs up and big smiles all around.

Trinidad, Cuba

Morning music in Trinidad, Cuba

Trinidad has music, too. We are in Cuba, after all. The music here is a little more country, a little less rock and roll. The act of getting together to play and enjoy the time seems almost more important than the music itself.

Trinidad is a coastal city and in our research of it we find a few suggestions about visiting its outer-lying beaches. One beach is near town and the other — Playa Ancón — is a longer taxi ride away. We go to both. As with everything in Cuba, there isn’t much information about what we’ll find at these beaches. But as with everything in Cuba, the adventure is usually worth it. Here’s our discovery at Playa Ancón. I’ll let you decide whether or not it’s worth it. In the meantime … hasta luego, mis amigos! I’ll be in the water.


Next post: The View Over Guantánamo

Culture Miscellaneous Travel

Gathering of Nations 2016

Gathering of Nations

The Men’s Fancy Feather Dance, Gathering of Nations 2016

The opening moment actually takes my breath away. The first drumbeat initiates a men’s dance of such color and fervor I can think of nothing to compare it to. A blur of motion blows past me — men spinning, dipping, stepping eloquently to the magnificent beat of an eight-person drum circle. Each one of these dancers is a work of art in his regalia and style of movement, but collectively they pulse like a beating heart, for several minutes, until the explosive drumbeat ceases into silence, the dancers hold their final pose and the crowd erupts in applause.

This is my first powwow. In the first three minutes, I’m speechless and nearly moved to tears.

I find out later that powwows don’t usually begin with a men’s Fancy Feather dance, but this year’s Gathering of Nations in Albuquerque, New Mexico has begun with this special performance in honor of the late Spike Draper, Diné Nation Posthumous Head Man Dancer for the two-day event. What a beginning — what a moment I won’t ever forget.

The Gathering of Nations is North America’s largest powwow, with more than 3,000 dancers from over 700 tribes and First Nations. I’ve arrived here for the two-day event on a personal mission. After writing about culture and life around Southeast Asia for the past four years, it’s time to dive back into the heritage of my own country and learn — or perhaps I should say re-learn — about the culture of the indigenous people and first nations of North America. It’s clear from being here, and from being a lot older and a little bit wiser about the world, that all of the American history lessons I sat through in school were narrowly-focused and vastly incomplete.

Gathering of Nations 2016

Representing Zia, Ute and Diné nations of Albuquerque, New Mexico

What I experience during the Gathering of Nations is as educational as it is enchanting. Three thousand dancers share the floor during the magnificent Grand Entry — an hour-long procession of all ages and nations, repeated four times in two days. The Grand Entries are followed by hours upon hours of competitive and community dancing, drumming and singing into the night and throughout the following day and night again. Jingle, Fancy Shawl, Buckskin, Grass, Cloth, Straight, Traditional, Gourd, Hand Drum … all new to me, and profound in heritage and significance. And beautiful — so completely, exquisitely beautiful that my words are futile in describing the experience of being here.

Gathering of Nations Grand Entry

Saturday’s first Grand Entry, Gathering of Nations 2016

I watch, I listen, I learn. I ask questions. I un-learn. I re-learn. I adjust the words I use, I change the questions I ask. I try. I hope. I am so grateful to be here. I am just one person, but I am one person. One step. One step closer to the truth. Past, future, here, now.


Click any photo in the gallery below to view as a slideshow.

Special thanks to James Korenchen of James Korenchen Public Relations for providing me with an all-access media pass to photograph the Gathering of Nations 2016.

These photos, and many others not shown here, will be given to the Gathering of Nations organization. Please do not use these images without my consent. If you’re pictured here and would like a copy of your photo, please get in touch by leaving a comment below. I’d be more than happy to send you your portrait.


WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge: Face

Culture Miscellaneous

Regarding Everest

After seeing Mani Rimdu and an enjoying an overnight stay near Tengboche, we trekked farther up the Khumbu Valley toward Dingboche. The terrain relaxed into high altitude farmland, where rock walls delineated plots of land used to farm buckwheat, barley and potatoes. It seems unlikely that at 4,300 meters (14,000 feet) there would be much of anything worth farming but the bounty from these three crops sustains the families in the region as a source of both food and income. Black barley, in particular, is well suited for growing at Dingboche’s unique altitude and Sherpas regard barley from here as the finest available — even divine, as the local god of barley resides at a nearby peak called Cho Polu. (You can read more about Khumbu farming here.)

After a few hours hiking through the valley, we reached the far edge of Dingboche where Ashish arranged our accommodations for the evening. The cold shadows of the afternoon were setting in and we pitched our tent in the front yard of the home of a Sherpa woman. She was in her fifties, lived alone and had four grown children,one of whom paid her a visit the next morning. She welcomed us inside the stone and mud hut where we warmed up next to a stove while she and Ashish exchanged pleasantries. After a few minutes, and with a twinkle in her eye, she pulled out an enormous plastic jug from under her bed: Raksi — the local home brew and the byproduct of Dingboche’s grain farming. We toasted and tasted, and thanked her for her hospitality.

Departing Dingboche the next morning, the valley lifted higher and turned slightly west with the promise of the world’s highest peaks not too far away.We crossed the Khumbu Khola to a plateau filled with monuments to world-famous Sherpas and climbers, and strings of prayer flags tattering in the wind.

It is a strange, even lonely sensation trekking into the majesty of the remote Himalayas. It is nearly silent from land to sky, with only the wind and your footsteps accompanying you. Your relationship with nature and desire to see the world become the motivating forces pushing you deeper into the isolation. Otherwise, why would you be here? Purpose becomes singular, grandeur becomes visible, and the magnitude of what you’re about to see builds into a tidal wave of anticipation. Finally, the trail rounds a bend and drops into the last stretch to Gorak Shep. Pumori, the perfect peak of a child’s drawing, sits to the left and the serrated edge of Nuptse cuts into the sky on the right. You have arrived.

Pumori to the left, Nuptse to the right, J in the middle

Pumori to the left, Nuptse to the right, J in the middle

We pushed on, now above 4,500 meters (15,000 feet) but still in the valley. Over the next kilometers the well-worn trail dissolved into the sandy basin of the Khumbu glacier, the world’s highest. Its path marks the movement of water, ice and rock over thousands of years. Listen closely and you might even hear it moving. When I was here in 2000 I spent three mesmerizing hours sitting and listening to the brittle snaps and pops of the Khumbu glacier’s noisy neighbor — the Ngozumpa glacier over Cho La Pass near Gokyo — while every now and then seeing rocks fall and dust fly as the glacier moved down the valley, inch by inch.

We picked our way through the rough and rocky terrain and arrived at the overlook to Gorak Shep — the farthest campsite of our trek.

It was high noon. Sunshine blasted over the moonscape of Gorak Shep with a dry, intense heat reminiscent of Arizona. We pitched our tent and made our decisions about what to do with the afternoon. I rested for tomorrow’s final climb to Kala Patthar (Black Rock) — the dark, dusty peak below Pumori in the photo above. J and a couple of Sherpas pushed on to Everest Base Camp in a six-hour round-trip hike, returning after dark exhilarated and exhausted.

With the sun down, temps dropped quickly. We settled into our sleeping bags around 8:00 p.m. and found our night in the Khumbu both eery and magnificent. With clear skies and no wind, complete silence surrounded us. But less than an hour into our sleep we heard the rumble of an avalanche on the other side of the glacier. Near midnight, I laid in my sleeping bag fearing the frigid cold and heart-pumping conditions of a trip to the toilet tent at the breathtaking altitude of 5,000 meters (16,500 feet). But as I emerged from the warmth of our VE 25, I was rewarded with the gift of the most beautiful starry sky I have ever seen. Shivering in my fleece jacket and tights, I savored a sight I may never see again in my lifetime.

We started the hike to Kala Patthar at 4:00 a.m. the next morning, hoping to reach the summit before sunrise above Everest. The trail to Kala Patthar is not kind — it hits you with a severe slope and series of false summits just when you’re most exhausted and wanting to get to the apex of your journey. But we soldiered on, with adrenaline and desire pushing us up the final scramble to the top, at 5,500 meters (18,200 feet).

We beat the sun, arriving in the shadow of Mount Everest and Nuptse, with Lhotse hidden behind. We unfurled our prayer flags, and J tied them up and let them speak to the wind in memory of his brother Gary.

It’s a hard feeling to describe, sitting on a rock regarding Mount Everest as the sun rises in the Himalayas. We felt a sense of achievement, a bit of relief, abundant awe and gratitude, and a lot of just … happiness. This world can be so scary, so fast moving, so out of control, so easy to despair over. But for a moment in our life, the world was none of those things. It was pure and simple. We walked there. We saw the biggest mountain on Earth and it was beautiful.


This post is the last in a series about my trip to Nepal in 2005. The series starts here.


Blessed by Mani Rimdu in the Himalayas

This entry is Part 6 in a series about my trip to Nepal in 2005.

Waiting for Mani Rimdu to begin

Waiting for Mani Rimdu to begin

The sudden flutter of activity at the front door of Tengboche Monastery brought everyone to their feet. Afternoon clouds settled at the crest of the hill, erasing parts of the deep blue sky with dramatic effect. The horns, previously droning from a window of the monastery, transitioned into a full-fledged musical procession moving down the front steps signaling the beginning of the day’s Mani Rimdu festivities.

Mani Rimdu celebrates the establishment of Buddhism in Tibet by Guru Rinpoche. The festival begins on the first day of the tenth month of the Tibetan lunar calendar (around October or November) and brings together the Tibetan, Sherpa and monastic communities of the region. For the first nine days of Mani Rimdu monks conduct private, sacred ceremonies called Drupchen, which are followed on the tenth day by the Wang, a blessing ceremony for the general public by the abbot of the monastery. This is followed by masked dances and celebration over three days with a fire puja marking the end of the festival.

To our delight, we arrived on the day of the Wang. The monks of Tengboche played horns, cymbals and drums as they exited the gate onto the trail in front of the monastery. Their full ceremonial dress included yellow hats symbolic of the Gelug school of Vajrayana Buddhism. Wrapped in a gold robe, one of the monks walked past with a two-foot conch shell held to his lips — what looked to be an antique musical instrument from far, far away.

At the gompa next to the monastery, the procession paused in an exquisite display of color and ceremony punctuated by a fantastic arc of yellow atop each monk’s head. Their music beat on in a clash of cymbals and horns as a masked man stepped into the focus of the growing crowd of Sherpas and trekkers. Snowy Kangtega filled the sky behind him.

Mi-Tsering of Mani Rimdu

Mi-Tsering of Mani Rimdu

Mi-Tsering is a featured persona of Mani Rimdu. He’s also known as Long Life Man. Narrative from Chiwong Monastery in Kathmandu says Mi-Tsering “is a kind, bumbling, gentle old man. He means well and does his best, but inevitably gets everything wrong. He is, however, convinced that he’s an expert and tries to instruct others in some of the temple rituals, such as offering khataks (silk scarves), or doing prostrations. His is a light-hearted comic act, yet it brings a poignant message of encouragement to ordinary people — that sincerity and good intentions count for as much as expertise. It is Mi-Tsering who heads the procession of monks welcoming Trulshig Rinpoche’s arrival at Chiwong, and who heralds him into the courtyard to preside over the dances. He is an acknowledgement of every man’s good intentions, however humble.”

Here in the Himalayas, Mi-Tsering preceded the appearance of Tengboche Rinpoche, Abbot of Tengboche Monastery. I am still astounded at my sheer luck getting a decent photograph of this revered man.


Tengboche Rinpoche, Abbot of the Tengboche Monastery

Narrative of the Tengboche Monastery notes, “In 1935, on the same day the Dalai Lama was born, a Sherpa family from Namche Bazaar had a son. When this boy was still very small he insisted he had a home and possessions in Tengboche. His family went to visit Ngawang Tenzin Norbu in Rongbuk and this high lama, who had always been closely connected with Tengboche, recognized him as the Tulku or reincarnation of Lama Gulu (founder of Tengboche Monastery, who died in 1934). He was given the name Ngawang Tenzin Zangbu. When the family returned to Namche the monks from Tengboche came with possessions from Lama Gulu mixed in with other monks’ possessions. The boy picked out everything that had belonged to the previous lama without hesitation. Everyone agreed he was the true incarnation and he was brought to Tengboche Monastery. He then undertook many years of hard study and training. He spent many years in Tibet studying with the great masters there. In 1956 he returned to Tengboche as the Abbot of the monastery and is known as Tengboche Rinpoche.”

The Abbot and monks moved to the side of the monastery where they were seated with Sherpas of the community. Mi-Tsering sat in a chair at a corner of the gathering, silk scarf in his hands, fielding curious looks from the Sherpas around him. Mani Rilwu and Tshereel were distributed with tea as Tengboche Rinpoche began giving the empowerment for long life, happiness and prosperity to everyone attending.

Trulshig Rinpoche, Abbot of Chiwong Monastery, says, “Seeing Mani Rimdu is like receiving a blessing.” Indeed, we felt blessed having seen this unique cultural event deep in the Himalayas. We returned to camp and rested up for the next day’s journey farther into the Khumbu.

Next: Regarding Everest — the final post in this series about Nepal.

This entry is Part 6 in a series about my trip to Nepal in 2005. Previous entries can be found here: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5


Cowbells & Caravans: How to Tour with the Tour de France

It’s summertime and I’ve been in the U.S. working for the past three weeks, leaving my blog stagnant and unattended. So hey, why not share a timely post from the past? The 2014 Tour de France is currently pedaling its way toward Les Alpes. Here’s a post from 2012 about the race, the party, and what makes The Tour an epic travel experience.

It’s April 30th. Do you know where your summer vacation is? If you live in Europe or you’re a cycling fan, maybe you do. If not, listen up. It’s called the Tour de France and it kicks off two months from today.

Do you love sports? Do you love cycling? Do you just love to ride a bike? Silly questions… of course you do! Just had to make sure I was speaking to the right audience before I justify my almost irrational claim that the Tour de France is, in fact, The Greatest Annual Party in the History of World Sports. If you like cycling, mountains, France, road trips, baguettes, cheese, wine, beer, camping, cowbells, socializing with happy people from around the world and never having to buy a ticket for a three-week-long sporting event (or even just ONE of these things)… then GO to FRANCE in JULY.

During the month of July, all of France is crazed and excited about cycling — a fact understood and accepted nationwide. This goes a long way in how you’ll be received as a spectator of the race and participant in The Greatest Annual Party in the History of World Sports. French people look forward to meeting you and welcoming you to their country. They let you camp on the roadside, they do their best to keep the traffic moving, they expect that you’ll respect their terrain and the riders who are cycling past you and, most importantly, they don’t try to control an event that has a life and spirit of its own.

Putting out the bike on race day

That’s really the best thing about this race and this party: the freedom. You go because you love it, you don’t have to follow a strict schedule or spend a lot of money (unless you want to), there are few rules or regulations about where you can or can’t spectate, and in the process of touring with The Tour you get to see the charming towns and stunning scenery of France, like this stop on our route in 2009:

Annecy, France

So how do you tour with The Tour? Here’s what I recommend: get a good map, review the race route, focus on one week if you have limited time (we’ve picked the mountain stages in the Alps twice so far), rent a car or a camper van (satellite TV optional), fly into Geneva with your camping gear, pick up the vehicle, arrive at the first stage on your itinerary the night before it happens, find a place to park, make your campsite and let the party begin. You’ll be surrounded by joyful, like-minded enthusiasts and the rest of the adventure will unfold in front of you as you watch the race and follow the caravan to the next stage of The Tour. It’s really that simple.

A typical scene along the route

Car or camper van — either one works!

There will be good shwag, great food, priceless opportunities to ride the stages if you bring your bike, an amusing caravan of sponsors before every stage and the daily chance to be within reaching distance of the world’s top 200 elite cyclists. Listen for the helicopters and you’ll know they’re approaching. Ring your cowbells as they cruise past you or display your patriotism as you run alongside — participation is up to you, just try not to spill your beer!

The sponsor caravan arrives on Col du Petit Saint-Bernard

The lion, symbol of The Tour


Alberto Contador


The infamous Lance Armstrong

The peloton following Contador, Armstrong and the Schleck brothers

Mr. Producer, flying the California flag while he drinks a beer

When the High Alps are over and it’s time for The Tour to head to Paris, return to Geneva and ditch the rental car. Hop a quick train to Paris and check into your hotel a night or two before the race arrives on the Champs Elysée. Eat and drink copious amounts of wine, cheese and French food at the adorable sidewalk cafes as you wait for The Tour to arrive. On the final day of the race, get out early to enjoy breakfast and walk around central Paris on one of the few days when its main thoroughfares are closed to traffic, and The Greatest Annual Party in the History of World Sports culminates after seven laps on brutal cobblestone streets.

Touring with The Tour is like taking a great novel on vacation with you… heroes and villains, egos and underdogs, triumphs and tragedies. The Tour is a living, breathing, dramatic story of strategy that unfolds across hundreds of kilometers during which weather, illness, doping, crashes, climbs, descents, ethics, controversy, exhaustion and plain old bad luck can and will affect all of the riders in the race. The Tour is life, on two wheels, for three weeks, during which you will party, eat, sleep and repeat amidst some of the most breathtaking scenery in the world. If you like this sort of thing, you’ll love touring with The Tour.

Did I mention it kicks off in Liège two months from today? Yes, that means you still have time to book your ticket, plan your route, pack your bike and GO. It really is that much fun, and there’s even this to look forward to at the very end:

All images  ©2012