Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

The Kanheri Caves of Mumbai, India

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Rajesh and I choke along the highway in his rickshaw, breathing in the air pollution as we zip past the slums bordering the highway. I probably should have taken a taxi, but driving in a rickshaw is so much more fun with the noise, the air, the essence of Mumbai right in my face. I lean out the open door and try to photograph what I see while clinging onto my camera, my backpack and my life in the precarious frame of his vehicle.

Mumbai, India

Mumbai, India

The traffic heading south is at full stop — everyone trying to get to work — while we head north, away from the jam. I expect the drive toward Sanjay Gandhi National Park to be easy and green, with signs that we’re heading toward nature. But nothing in Mumbai is easy or green. The ragged edge of life extends as far as I can see. We make a crowded right turn off the highway to the park entrance.

Through the gates, I finally find the peace and quiet of nature which is interrupted by a driver who wants to charge me 2,500 rupees to drive me 10 minutes farther up the road to the Kanheri Caves. He assumes I don’t know there’s an hourly public bus for far less money, but with the sun rising fast I decide I’d rather go now than wait for it. I negotiate to 1,000 rupees and we’re on our way. Ten minutes up the dirt road we arrive at the ticket booth where I climb the stairs to the caves.

The Kanheri Caves are among the oldest in India, used for Buddhist life and meditation from the first century B.C. to the tenth century A.D. Carved from the basalt of the surrounding hills, the caves are surprisingly angular in design with simple stone benches cut along the interior walls of many of them. Several caves have columns at the entrance and beautifully carved figures posed in various mudras.

The Kanheri site holds 109 caves, each numbered with a stencil outside the entrance. Cave 3 is a prayer hall, with remnants of a stupa in front of it and a smaller cave to the left of it.

Walking up to the entrance of Cave 3, I’m struck by the size of the columns and figures at the doorway. I feel tiny — reminiscent of the feeling I had when I walked into St. Paul’s cathedral in Rome. To the left and right, larger-than-life Buddhist figures watch over the entrance.

For the moment, I have the prayer hall to myself. I feel a sense of awe and a sense of loss at the same time. It’s clear this was once a very significant space and it hums with the subtle energy of a dying life force, but a few bits of trash on the ground and noisy tourists approaching the entrance interrupt the reverence this prayer hall deserves.

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

I wait in the hall until I’m alone again in silence. I wish I knew more about what happened here, how long it took to carve the prayer hall, how the design originated, who carved the columns, what the purpose was of the notches on the ceiling. It’s a maddening paradox that today we so easily record such endless, useless details — what we ate for lunch, which handbag we bought over the weekend — but here, old and vital details are lost. Historic places like this hold incredible stories we’ll never, ever know.

Outside the prayer hall, I climb the steps up the hill toward the other caves. Mumbai’s skyline pokes above the treetops behind a veil of pollution.

View from atop the Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

View from atop the Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Hilltop path at the Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Hilltop path at the Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

I reach the next caves which are carved on the right and left banks of a natural ravine between two hills. An archaeological team is repairing a walkway next to a series of irrigation chambers leading downhill to larger cisterns. I try to ask questions about what exactly these holes in the ground might have been used for but we share no common language.

One of the men on the team recognizes my curiosity and manages to communicate to me that there’s a painting inside the cave where he’s working. He waves me toward the interior and points to the ceiling.

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

Kanheri Caves, Mumbai India

It’s very dark but I can just make out the lines and shading of the art. I sit on the ground, put my elbows on my knees and point my camera up. I adjust my camera settings. Since I don’t have a tripod, I exhale and hold as still as possible as I try to capture a clear image without using a flash. After a few tries, I get a decent shot and discover that the painting is done in tints of red, probably with madder root. And it’s just pretty amazing to be sitting here looking at someone’s skill and creativity from hundreds — or maybe even thousands — of years ago.

I thank the man as I leave the cave and turn my attention across the ravine. Deep and square, more caves lead to more mysterious chambers inside. I take in as much as I can for the speck of time I’m at Kanheri, in awe that these ancient caves have been sitting here quietly through world empires, dictators and revolutions… old and new.

Miscellaneous Travel
Maldives

My Top 12 Travel Experiences by Month

Happy New Year everyone!

Thinking about where to go in 2017? Here are my top twelve travel experiences (ever, not just this year) by month. I hope you find some ideas among these journeys. Thank you all so much for reading, following, commenting and being such an inspirational community!

January: Finding Zen in the Maldives

If you want to forget about everything except the horizon in front of you, this might be the place. Yes, it’s painfully expensive but if you can get to the Maldives you’ll find every tint and shade of blue within an intense peacefulness that will inspire you to do nothing but stare at the view, put your toes in the sand and maybe swim around with the resident tropical fish.

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February: Longtail Boating Through the Canals of Bangkok

This was a short but sweet experience that I’d love to repeat someday. Hop in a longtail boat at the edge of the Chao Praya and ask your captain to take you on a tour of the canals of Bangkok. You’ll get to see a different side of the city with a much less frenetic pace from a cool and relaxing perspective. Don’t forget to stop at the floating market for a bite to eat.

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March: Touring Bagan’s Temples by Horse Cart

If you like history and architecture, you’ll love Bagan. The landscape is crisscrossed with paths from one ancient temple to the next. A good local guide with a horse cart can take you to the most notable temples, or you can follow your whim by looking for spires and biking your way around. It would take months to see them all, but don’t miss the Shwezigon Pagoda — covered in gold and by far the most opulent.

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April: Safari in Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka is one of my favorite destinations of all time. With temples, history, tea country, train rides through the hills, lush jungles, pristine beaches, friendly locals and abundant wildlife, Sri Lanka has a rare combination of everything that makes traveling wonderful. My favorite experience was a three-day safari at Yala National Park with its incredible diversity — elephants, sloth bears, water buffalo, deer, wild boars, foxes, crocodiles, hornbills, and leopards that are bigger in size and more densely populated than anywhere else on the planet.

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May: Chasing Waterfalls in Yosemite National Park

When the snow stops and the spring sun shines, Yosemite National Park is in its prime. Venture to the valley floor where you’ll feel like a tiny human in the context of the thousands of years of geology surrounding you. Yosemite’s waterfalls — Upper Yosemite, Lower Yosemite, Bridalveil, Nevada and Vernal among them — usually reach peak flow in May. From the road, from the trail and from Glacier Point especially, they are spectacular in their power and beauty. Just don’t get too close!

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June: A Homestay in Borneo

Saloma shares her family home with anyone seeking an authentic experience in the jungle of Borneo. We spent a few days with Saloma and marveled at her way of life and knowledge of the land. From cooking rice in a stalk of bamboo, to foraging for plants and enjoying a barbecue lunch in a hut deep in the jungle, to walking through a longhouse and meeting the neighbors, this homestay was a direct connection with a way of life unfamiliar to us but hundreds of years old in tradition. Saloma is a real-life Queen of the Jungle.

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July: Following the Tour de France Through the Alps

Fly into Geneva, rent a car or a camper, buy some wine and cheese and hit the road into the Alps. The Tour de France is a road trip party with people from all over the world. It’s so much fun that loving the sport of cycling isn’t even necessary (but it does help). There’s a lot of waiting around partying and when the péloton finally shows up it blows past in a matter of minutes. But seeing all the pretty French villages on the route, being able to camp anywhere you want, having cheese and wine every afternoon and and doing it all over again the next day … Mon dieu! C‘est magnifique!

Runner-up for July: Carnaval in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

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August: Car Camping Through Italy

Che cazzo! I don’t have any photos of this trip since it happened way back in 2001. But if you’re looking for slow travel through Italy, car camping might just be the thing. We rented a car in Milan, drove to Florence and Rome, cut east to Francavilla, stopped in Vieste and ended the trip in Bari (before catching the ferry to Greece). We car camped the whole way, astounded by the comfort of the campgrounds — many with markets, pools, laundry facilities and restaurants. Among the best was camping on the beach in Vieste (aerobics every day at 4:00) and our spectacular campsite across the river in Florence (best view of the Duomo anywhere). Why August? Nearly all the shops and restaurants of Italy are closed in August since everyone is on vacation, but this means you’ll be immersed in local culture, make new friends and see the refined art of Italian family camping. Quite an experience — just make your campsite reservations well ahead of time.

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September: Trekking Nepal’s Khumbu Valley

This is a true journey of a lifetime. Trekking farther into the Himalayas each day gets progressively harder and being in tune with your body is especially important. Each step and each breath gets you closer to Mount Everest and on some mornings those are the only two things you can even think about. But when you crest that mountain and see that view of Everest from Kala Patthar, there is nothing like it in the world. Mother Nature sits right in front of you with a greeting that took millions of years to get to you.

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October: Seeing the Fall Colors from a Ryokan in Kyoto

Japan is art. There’s no other way to describe it. Immerse yourself in the composition by staying at an authentic ryoken and venturing around Kyoto’s many landmarks and gardens to see the bamboo forests and changing colors of fall. We stayed at Seikoro Ryokan and loved every minute of our stay. From the tatami mats to the sliding screen doors to the unknown dishes of our Japanese breakfast, it was a visit that has inspired us to return to Japan whenever we can to unlock the meanings of its many customs and traditions.

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November: Touring Sa Pa’s Weekend Markets

If you want to find culture then find the night train from Hanoi to Sa Pa. Plan your visit around the weekend so you’ll be there for the market when minority hill tribes come down into Sa Pa from their surrounding mountain communities. Textiles, clothing, embroidery, beading and color give subtle clues to hill tribe identity. One of our best experiences was sharing a beer and hot bowls of pho with a hill tribe woman at the main market. And discovering the sewing shop and buying a quilt and a custom pair of pants — made overnight. Visiting Bac Ha, the Sunday market in the neighboring village, takes the whole experience to the next level.

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December: Desert Camping in Oman

December had a close runner-up: Christmas markets in Germany. Whether you sip glühwein while eating a bratwurst and shopping for ornaments, or drive your 4WD vehicle into the uncharted desert to drink Omani coffee and do some sand dune sledding, you can’t go wrong. Both experiences are unique, memorable and evoke a sense of place that won’t be forgotten. I still think about Oman’s desert silence, the unexpected cold of the morning, the sunsets and shadows, and the feeling of being very far away from everything.

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Wherever you are in 2017, I hope you find yourself in love — with life, with yourself, with each other, with the world, with the kindness and beauty that persists and will always be there for discovery. Happy New Year!

Miscellaneous Travel

History, a Photograph and the View Over Guantánamo

Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

Santiago de Cuba, Cuba

The song accompanying this post is Guantanamera performed by Manos Libres, a musical group we loved in La Habana Vieja. Guantanamera is one of the most well-known songs of Cuba — played every day, all over the island — with lyrics by Cuban writer and national hero José Martí. With this post we’ve come full circle — from Carnaval in Santiago de Cuba, to Havana, to Trinidad, and now back to Santiago de Cuba.

Santiago de Cuba ambles down the hill toward the port. The view from above is stunning in every direction — ocean, mountains, and a mishmash of architecture with a collective appearance that doesn’t immediately communicate its location. This could be the view in quite a few cities around the world. But the accompanying rum, searing heat and ever-present music reveal its identity as unmistakably Cuban.

We’re staying in an elegant casa particular in the Vista Alegre neighborhood outside downtown. The grand dame of the house is Bérta — a highly successful, retired arts educator in her eighties. The home is quietly welcoming, just like Bérta who stands to greet us upon arrival. She speaks a bit of English and seems happy to be hosting travelers from all over the world.

Bérta’s daughter Nani and son-in-law Reynaldo run the guest house business, among their other pursuits which include writing about and documenting Cuban history. Their office is a treasure trove of preserved newspapers from many important days in Cuban history. In the hall outside our bedroom, moments of the Revolucion hang on the walls in frames, frozen in time.

In one frame: Buscan al Camilo — Searching for Camilo, the headline from October, 1959. Camilo Cienfuegos, a key figure of the Granma expedition and Revolucion, went missing on a night flight to Havana. He was never found.

In another frame: Proclamado Presidente El Dr. Urrutia with a photo below of Fidel Castro. Urrutia was proclaimed president of Cuba in January, 1959 and served for six months before resigning due to disagreements with then Prime Minister Fidel Castro. If this home and its archives could talk, and if I knew more Spanish, there would be epic stories to uncover here.

We stay at Berta’s casa particular for two nights and then move on to another one a few streets away. At the next casa particular, we meet our hosts Oti and Adalberto. Through Adalberto’s very limited English (and a Google search later when I return from the trip), I learn that he’s a former colonel of the Guantánamo Frontier Brigade, who studied in Russia many years ago. And his wife Oti? She was in the Cuban army as well — and looks like she could totally kick some ass. But Adalberto is irresistibly gentle in his old age, with soft hands the size of baseball gloves. We ask to eat dinner at the house one night so he proceeds to cut plantains from the tree, scale a fish, fire up the charcoal barbecue and roast the fish on top of the plantains. He serves the fish with a magnificent marinade — some magical creation of garlic, lemon, oil and Cuban miracle spice — that is better than any marinade I’ve ever tasted. Unfortunately, the recipe is lost in translation, to remain captive in Cuba.

I laugh when Adalberto pantomimes later that making the fish dinner for us gave him a few new gray hairs. He’s new to this casa particular business but seems entertained enough to give it a chance. He asks what he can do better. Nothing, Señor. You have done plenty.

While we’re in Santiago de Cuba, we make a day trip to climb 450 steps up Gran Piedra — one of the biggest rocks in the world. Its weight is estimated at 63,000 tons and you can stand right on top of it for a panoramic view of the entire southern end of Cuba. On a clear night, they say you can even see the lights of Haiti.

Getting to Gran Piedra requires a really good vehicle because the road is steep and rough. Nani helps us locate just the guy we need. He owns a truck made by Willys-Overland, an old American car company that used to make military vehicles. Our driver pulls up with his vintage ride and we’re off to Gran Piedra, through verdant fields and up the mountain, passing a few cars that have overheated along the way. He drops us at the hut where we pay a small fee and begin the short climb to the top.

At the base of the final staircase to Gran Piedra, I buy a few bracelets from a father and son. We continue to the top of the rock where we find another couple of vendors selling their crafts in what is one of the most splendid settings you could wish for on a clear day. We’re lucky to have missed the fog. The lush, green hills fall away from us in every direction, the clouds are suspended like pillows and we can see all the way to the coastline where bright white crescents of sand look like little slivers of deserted paradise.

With so much beauty in every direction, it is difficult to fathom that Guantánamo Bay — the American prison — lies just beyond the hills to the southeast of us. We’re essentially looking right over it from where we’re standing. With such dark history, my mind expects to see a shadow, some kind of ugliness, some malevolent indicator of its location on the view in front of us. But here, the darkness of history has no power against the beauty of nature and all we can see is infinite blue and green.

Gran Piedra, Guantánamo Province

Gran Piedra, Guantánamo Province

We descend Gran Piedra, wave goodbye to one of the women at the top, and depart with the experience of having seen beauty and history in an evocative duet. It seems like every step we take in Cuba is accompanied by this pairing, which I think is what has made Cuba so compelling to me in the span of 12 days. History is always just right there at the surface.

Padre Pico Steps, Santiago de Cuba

Padre Pico Steps, Santiago de Cuba

Back in downtown Santiago de Cuba, we meander down the hill from Parque Céspedes to the Padre Pico steps. This is where Fidel Castro fired the first shots in his movement against two-time President of Cuba Fulgencio Batista. Batista was the incumbent until he was ousted by forces of the Revolucion — led by Che Guevarra — on January 1, 1959. Not far from the top of the Padre Pico steps is the childhood home of Fidel Castro.

Fidel Castro's childhood home

Fidel Castro’s childhood home

A brick and mortar path leads to the home’s simple square facade. Pastel tints of pink and yellow seem a thousand shades away from a man we’ve seen in a lot of army green. The home shows no signs of life but an elderly woman sits on the front porch of the adjoining home, as a little boy looks at us over its railing. J gives him a toy Matchbox car. He is over the moon.

A few men (landscapers?) linger in the front yard of the woman’s home, enjoying the shade of the flame tree. One of them asks me for a ballpoint pen. He is delighted when I present him with the one, very nice, extra ballpoint pen I have with me that, for some reason, I placed in my backpack right before I departed for Cuba. The pen has found its more appreciative new owner. Small gifts go a really long way in this country.

While I’m taking photos, J strikes up a Spanish/English/charade conversation with the woman on the front porch. She presents J with a photograph from many years ago when Fidel Castro returned here to his former home. This woman is about the same age as Castro is today (90) and her children are pictured in the photograph. From what we can gather, this woman has lived here her whole life and was Fidel Castro’s childhood neighbor. Guantanamera!

We are reminded yet again that Cuban history is right there at the surface, alive and well, waiting to be discovered by whoever seeks it out.

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I’m sad to be wrapping up my stories of Cuba. I hope you’ve enjoyed them, lingered over them, like a good Cuban cigar.

Miscellaneous Travel
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.

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Next post: The View Over Guantánamo

Culture Miscellaneous Travel
Bali Villa

Add a Bali Villa to Your Travel Bucket List

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Full moon rising above Villa Dermawan

One of the things I love most about blogging is the support of fellow writers. Over the years, many of us travel bloggers have gotten to know each other pretty well despite never having met in person. Hearing from these people puts a smile on my face and inspires me to write more. Yesterday, Gallivance liked a post I wrote several years ago about Bali and Lombok. Their “like” got me thinking about Bali — which is never a bad thing. In doing so, I realized I haven’t written about one of the most enjoyable aspects of visiting Bali: renting a villa! If you haven’t yet experienced this, I hope you’ll add it to your travel bucket list.

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Our one-bedroom hut at Sacred Mountain Sanctuary Resort in Bali

The first time I visited Bali, I was on my honeymoon and we stayed at two boutique hotels during the trip. The hotels were wonderful and there are certainly many great options around the island if you choose this type of accommodation. But while living in Singapore, I was fortunate to return to Bali for several long weekends with friends. Instead of staying at a hotel, we rented a villa each time and relished every moment of having a private home and pool all to ourselves.

Our villa experiences were made most enjoyable by the hospitality of the Balinese staff tending the villas. Every villa typically employs at least two people who take care of the home and make sure you have an excellent stay. Their service is included in the cost of the villa, and they can help arrange other things like transportation and massages by the pool. Best of all, you can usually hire your villa staff to cook authentic Indonesian meals for you throughout your stay. Your villa vacation, already pretty spectacular, becomes even more delicious when you wake up to nasi uduk and fresh fruit or savor a poolside dinner of nasi goreng and satay.

So, need some villa recommendations? Villa Dermawan is located down a tiny brick lane about five minutes from the beach in Seminyak. A high gate and a Buddha statue greet you as you walk through the large front doors. An open-air kitchen and living room overlook the pool, which is next to the main master bedroom. A second master bedroom, open bathroom and sitting area are located at the far end of the grassy lawn. This villa is paradise for couples wanting space and privacy with authentic Balinese character.

Also in Seminyak, Villa Ipanema is modern in design with two stories and five huge bedrooms, each with its own ensuite bathroom. An open-air living room, dining room and kitchen face the pool. For a group of ten adults, this villa brings the pool and the party together for a super fun experience. (I saw it happen. I took part.)

Villa Phalosa hosted the wedding of two of my friends, on a large lawn with a pool facing the ocean. Both of their extended families stayed at this villa during the week leading up to the wedding. Rain was a possibility on wedding day so the bride and groom hired a Tukang Terang (rain stopper) — a Balinese man who held off the precipitation by performing a ritual at a local temple. He did a great job, as you can see in the photos — such a great job, in fact, that temps were sweltering and the wedding party and guests dove in the pool fully clothed shortly after dinner. What a night! (Bali creates these kinds of memories. I took part in this, too.)

And finally, Villa Kaira near Canggu offers everything needed for a luxurious group stay — private cottages, koi pond, spiral staircase, grassy lawn, pool and leafy view of the ocean. I attended a wedding here last May and thoroughly enjoyed seeing another awesome villa amid the idyllic beauty of Bali.

I’m barely scratching the surface here. Whatever your needs and preferences, there is likely an irresistible villa awaiting your arrival. Should you choose to tick this box on your bucket list, you’ll find there are loads of rental agencies with an endless number of villas to choose from. I have experience booking with Villa-Bali and recommend this company as they thoroughly inspect all the villas they represent (dream job!) and I can vouch for their office in Singapore (which may offer some comfort if you’re considering booking a villa but you’re a little scared of wiring your money overseas to places unknown).

So there you have it — a brief look at what you can expect when you rent a villa in Bali. And bonus! In terms of price, villas are often cheaper than neighboring hotels, especially if you’re traveling with a group that can share the cost. What you gain in private amenities and beauty is priceless, and should definitely be experienced at least once in a lifetime. Go, and see for yourself!

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Thanks, James and Terri, for the “like” that inspired this post!

Miscellaneous Travel
Kyoto Japan Travel

Treasures of Kyoto

kyoto01

Few places in the world mix charm and history like Kyoto, Japan. Spending just a few days here juxtaposes the past with the future for an unforgettable experience. Where else can you see a stunning trio of geishas walking through Gion while fixated on their smart phones?

I visited Kyoto last December and while the stark beauty of winter was apparent, I couldn’t help but imagine the beauty of this town in the bloom of spring or the shifting colors of fall. This alone would be good enough reason to visit Kyoto more than once. Many of the sites around town have a strong connection with nature and the integration of indoor and outdoor spaces illustrates the essence of Japanese design.

If you’re visiting Kyoto, don’t miss these remarkable treasures of history and beauty.

Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion

Hope for clear weather if you visit Kinkaku-ji, for the glow of this charming pavilion rivals the sun itself. Originally a shogun villa, Kinkaku-ji became the prominent feature of this 32-acre site at the end of the 14th century. Classical Japanese gardens border the mirror pond which integrates the pavilion within the surrounding landscape of islands, rocks and trees. The pavilion displays three architectural styles in three stories, with the top two covered in gold leaf and lacquer. Through the past centuries, war and arson have threatened to destroy this beauty but the latest rebuild of 1955 shines on for all to enjoy.

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Daitokuji Monastery

Find your zen among the rock gardens of Daitokuji Monastery, founded in 1319. This vast complex requires patience and curiosity to seek out the gems hidden among its many sub-temples, but the rewards are great and the silence is palpable. Spend an afternoon meditating from the engawas or marveling at how all those beautifully raked stones show no trace of a footstep.

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Arashiyama’s Bamboo Forest and Walkabout

Green and lithe above you, the Arashiyama Bamboo Forest dwarfs and awes you all at once. But go beyond this unique landmark and you’ll find even more to explore. Okochi Sanso, marked by a little booth that might deter you with its entrance fee (it’s worth it), offers a labyrinth of stone paths and gardens set around the former villa of a Japanese actor of the early 1900s. North from here, you’ll find artists’ studios and shops among the streets of Arashiyama. Venture farther still and you’ll arrive at Adashino Nenbutsu-ji cemetery and temple. From the late 700s to the late 1800s, people who were brought here received no tombstone or burial. Instead, they were memorialized with Buddha statues, of which there are around 8,000 — along with another bamboo forest that’s prettier and more peaceful than the first one down the road.

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Fushimi Inari Shrine

Inari, the Shinto god of rice and deity of business, inspired this shrine with its seemingly endless series of torii (traditional gates). Founded during the Nara period, it is the head shrine of Japan’s 30,000+ Inari shrines and every torii has been donated by a company or individual, as inscribed on the columns. If you enjoy photography, you will lose your mind here — repetition, color, scale and a path that leads all over the mountain make every angle an image to capture. Larger-than-life foxes — Inari’s messengers — sit at the entrance to the shrine and smaller statues appear frequently along the path. Plan to spend a few hours if you want to walk the gates from start to finish, or you can shorten the four kilometer loop at Yotsutsuji intersection.

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Kiyomizu-dera Temple

Established on the hillside in 778, Kiyomizu-dera offers panoramic views across Kyoto from a complex of halls and pagodas. A natural spring flows into the site and visitors can sip the water at the Otowa Waterfall. Adjacent to this, the Kiyomizu Stage is a marvel of engineering with a framework of 12-meter pillars erected using traditional Japanese timber construction (no nails or fasteners). After touring this scenic temple, wander the quaint streets at its base where you’ll find more examples of traditional architecture and, if you’re lucky, a glimpse of the enduring legacy of Kyoto’s geishas.

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With a bit of planning, the sites listed here can be reached by local train and/or bus from central Kyoto. Daily bus passes are available for ¥500 at most ryokans. You can hop on and off as many times as you like, making it more economical than paying per trip (¥230). Arashiyama is farthest from central Kyoto but rewards with a half-day of exploring at the very least.

kyoto31

 

Travel

Vancouver Hiking: Joffre Lakes

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Upper Joffre Lake

Just a couple hours from Vancouver, our group finds the trailhead and sets out into the forest seeking a trio of glacial lakes in Joffre Lakes Provincial Park. The lower lake appears just ahead, not far from our starting point — a little amuse bouche of what’s farther up the trail. Reed grass paints a lime green swath through the water while the sun hides behind clouds just above the mountains.

We continue on the trail — easy under foot and blanketed by thick undergrowth on both sides. The park clearly sees a lot of precipitation as the vegetation looks almost like a rainforest. The trail shifts into high gear and we’re soon progressing through a valley on a steep incline. Getting to the middle lake is an uphill haul, but the views entice and encourage and we find ourselves at the shore, out of breath.

A glacial lake is a sight to behold, anywhere in the world. Deep blue-green and opaque, it’s not only hard to describe but hard to believe even when seeing it in person. The blue tones accentuate the yellow in the vegetation surrounding the lake, and it seems today that even my camera is having difficulty interpreting the values of this extraordinary landscape. It just doesn’t look real.

Just up the trail, water cascades down through the trees along a nearly perfect staircase waterfall. The sky tries to clear and we continue on our way to Upper Joffre Lake.

The highest lake offers the greatest reward, with a view into a cirque topped by an old glacier. It’s the perfect place to stop for lunch so we settle on a coarse moraine next to the trail. The sun finally shines and hits the water like a spotlight — blue-green changing to aqua in a brilliant show of colors. The glacier holds a hint of icy blue and with my long lens I see the many layers of winters past fused together in a moving, melting canvas. We explore the campground at the far end of the lake (paradise!) and then begin our descent back to our starting point.

It’s such a thrill to find wilderness so easily reached from Vancouver. It’s just the beginning of my adventure here and Canada’s backcountry is vast. I think there’s plenty to keep me busy for however long I’m here.

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To get to Joffre Lakes Provincial Park, take Highway 99 from Vancouver through Whistler to Pemberton. The parking area is located on the right side, several kilometers past Lillooet Lake. For more information, visit the park website:

http://www.env.gov.bc.ca/bcparks/explore/parkpgs/joffre_lks/

 

Miscellaneous Travel
Alishan, Taiwan

The Old Trees of Alishan, Taiwan

Alishan, Taiwan

It’s two days before Christmas and we miss the last bus to Alishan. With no backup plan, we resort to hiring a taxi to drive us up the mountain. It’s an expensive endeavor, but so are the holidays. The road turns and twists for more than an hour and at times we wonder if we’ve gone too far off the beaten path with our latest adventure in Taiwan. Our driver even stops to light a cigarette in unspoken agreement that this road is something to be reckoned with.

We finally top out and arrive at Alishan House. It’s a bit too dark and foggy to gauge our elevation but we agree that having our head in the clouds is always a pretty good indicator that we’re somewhere worthwhile. It’s not until the next morning that we see the quiet Alishan forest when we set out by foot to explore the mountaintop.

We board a five-car train for a quick ride to the start of the hike, an unexpected beginning to what turns out to be a charming walk through the forest. An elevated plank path leads the way through the trees — a mix of new and old growth, cedars and cypresses, with a profusion of greenery at every turn. Giant red cypresses are the highlight — towering over us, impossible to photograph, firmly rooted in the mountainside, some for thousands of years.

Logging has ceased here and tourism is the economic force at Alishan. This has clearly been the salvation of these old growth trees. I think of the history through which they’ve existed, their lifetimes in pace with the redwoods and sequoias of Northern California on the other side of the Pacific.

We return to Alishan House for sunset where, above the clouds, we find a stunning view and finally sense our location high on the mountain. The old railway — no longer in use — clings to the opposite mountainside, a broken and dangerous reminder of years past. The sun sets as clouds roll past us and mountaintops just their heads above the fog to breathe freely from the sky, just like we do.

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Alishan National Scenic Area is located in south-central Taiwan, and can be reach by car, bus or taxi from Chiayi station on the Taiwan High Speed Rail route.

Miscellaneous Travel