Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Coastal Columbia

Dive in Taganga: Old Fishing Village Equals SCUBA! (Days 1-3)

After 24 hrs en route and a dubious taxi ride solo, I reunite with Sharlene at our hotel in yet another country, Colombia!
Taganga!
Ex-fishing village turned laid back beach town
First meal: grilled fish, coconut rice, plantains and fresh Lulo juice (no clue what our equivalent would be, but it was tropical and delicious!)
Arepa man! You know I love my street food.
Happy 2015 on a Colombian Beach! Not a shabby beginning

SCUBA: the world down under
The main goal of these travel is to get SCUBA certified. After careful research, we went with Poseidon for PADI certification. I studied all Christmas break through PADI e-learning. Go figure on my first week out of the fall semester, I'm madly doing grades and taking an online course. After 5 units, quizzes and a final exam, I'm pleased to say I passed! I was a bad student just looking for answers and I think I skipped all the videos. Oops. The important thing is I'm alive and certified. We went with Poseidon Dive Center which was professional, though our instructor wasn't the best.

Three day SCUBA plan:
Day 1: learn about equipment, practice exercises in pool
Day 2: review quiz (whew, also passed with a 24/25!), out to the open waters! 2 dives at 12 meters
Day 3: 2 more open water dives at 18 meters
(All were half day plans so we had plenty of time to siesta and explore Taganga)  

SCUBA buddies
 I need to work on my buddy skills (sorry for losing you Sharlene!)
Thank goodness for some land time between open water dives
Everything about this open water course was intense. In fact, my friend joked that PADI is Pay And Dive Immediately. Yes, that's what we want! On the last day our goal was to not vomit. It was barely accomplished. We pressed on. The waters were crazy rough so it was hard to even do buddy checks at the surface. Oh, to not have salt water in my mouth, nose, ears and everywhere.  I need to work on my buddy and my neutral buoyancy skills. It's hard to stay neutral. SCUBA cert wasn't the most fun vacation activity, but also not the worst. It was no Nepal monsoon trek. Totally worth but nonetheless we were glad to be done. now I'm excited to put SCUBA on the table for future travels! Who's in?

Typical street and homes in Taganga

Tayrona National Park: where Colombians vacation (days 4-5)
We spent two days and one night in a hammock here. It's a gorgeous coastal section with beaches and jungle in the background. We hiked an hour into the park then another hour beach hopping. It was traffic time in the coast so there were lots of stops for passing people and horses.

Cabo San Juan Beach: the picturesque place on the cover of lonely planet
Sunset at our Beach: Arrecifes
It was a fitful night of sleep in my hammock #18 out of 24. I tried to readjust and not fall out. The howling wind, and maybe animals (?) didn't help either. I was willing for the sun to rise. We were on the trail at 6:30 AM. No one else was up. Score. Beat the morning rush hour traffic. No hoards of Colombian families.

To Pueblito
Hiking in a jungle to Pueblito
We did this fun, challenging uphill hike scrambling up, over and under boulders. One of the best things was we had the trail practically to ourselves. After making it to the top, we chilled with a lukewarm Gatorade for 15 min, noticed we were way too early for the activities which were probably crafts. No thanks, I'll pass. Though the trails were fairly clearly marked I managed to loop ourselves in a circle and head back up the mountain. Oops. Note, this is why I should never lead a hike or go solo, which I may have done before (shhhh!).

Climbing boulders. I know it doesn't look like it, but we really did need this rope to go over the edge
Pueblito with traditional houses and people


Tayrona park accomplished! We hiked ourselves two hours out of the park, getting only a little lost again. Then hopped on a shuttle to the local bus to Santa Marta. There, we accidentally walked towards the suburbs. Rerouting we finally made it to our posh hotel, the nicest of the trip. That was our prize for roughing it in the jungle 1.5 days. Man, am I getting soft?

Dichotomy:Hammock hostel in the jungle one night.
Posh hotel in the city of Santa Marta the next night.
Because that's how we roll.

Santa Marta 

Santa Marta is South America's oldest surviving city. Overall, we didn't explore Santa Marta too much as we were only there in the evening. We chilled, treated ourselves to a nice dinner on Plaza Nuevo, but no Ouzo that we planned because almost everyone takes Sunday off. Darn Sabbath interfering with our plans. Guess we can't get too upset. 

Catedral: supposedly Colombia's oldest church

Cartegena: Jewel of the Carribean Coast (Day 6-7)

After waking up at 6 am for no reason, we. had a nice chill breakfast and then chilled with our smartphones. Yes, I just might have become one of those peoples on this trip. Sigh, but hopefully that means you'll get pics faster.

It was a smooth transfer and only about 5 hours in total. Walking towards the hotel (not in circles or the wrong direction), my 6th bakery sense kicked in and I walked right into the panaderia to pick up scrumptious napolean buns for a snack. I knew I would like this town already.

Sharlene walking the wall at sunset, our first activity.

Snuck in on a model shot.
Iglesia de San Pedro Claver in its plaza. One of the many plazas in town.

Ceviche Peruvian Style at La Cevicheria
The last time I had this was in Puno, Peru. We ordered raw fish by accident at an unvetted restaurant but it was sooo good we couldn't stop eating.  This time I could enjoy with a peace of mind. No worries of food in Colombia, or at least none that we are aware of.

Plaza de la Aduana. Night time here is amazing. Lights galore from Christmas decorations.

 Our main goal of the next morning was to go to Mercado Barzuto. Lonely planet described it as "for adventurous souls only" and "an assault on all your senses." Sold. Must go there. Here's the convo I had with our hotel concierge.Me: where do you take the bus to Mercado Barzuto?
Man: Why do you want to go there? There are many people and only food.
Me: Because it is interesting.
Man: Be careful with your phone and camera.
He was definitely thinking "These crazy girls." Oh well, off we went! It actually wasn't that crazy and the fish made it smell like Chinatown. But we had success in that all our money and phones stayed on us.
Food at Mercado Barzuto

Fort: Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
We hopped off the public bus at this fort to explore the underground tunnels. They were all right, and the fort was just OK. We zoomed through it pretty quickly.
Pastries! Bread and cheese. Yum! Note also the traditional water in a bag and postobon. All for under $2.

Grilled corn lady magically appears at night only. Thank goodness we found her again!
Picturesque street in Cartegena
Cartegena is a lovely, walkable town. We enjoyed exploring and eating. We had traditional food at La Muleta which we highly recommend. Good siesta times. Two days and one night was sufficient. Now we are off on a plane to Bogota!

Palacio de Inquisicion. Cartegena: cut!

Monday, December 29, 2014

Colombia and SCUBA at Last!

Colombia .... the country, not the University. It is often a point of confusion when it comes to me. In fact, when I took my first job out of grad school at Columbia University, my friend thought I meant Colombia the country because that seemed more probable than staying in NYC.

Why Colombia? For the past 3 years it has always made the top 3 list of places to go but never made the cut. Now I have a friend, Sofia, in Bogota that I met in Tibet. She showed me awesome pics and stories of her home country AND that Colombia is a great place to learn SCUBA. Done and done! Scuba is a big hole in my travels that I've been meaning to fill. It wasn't hard to convince Sharlene of this plan. So we both studied hard for our PADI certification over break and are off from our respective sides of the states to convene in Colombia tomorrow

Pics and stories to come. And I broke my rule of posting my last trip before I take off on the next one. Sorry, Tibet and Nepal pics are not finished. Life is crazy and I seem to travel more often now. Not a bad thing.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Eating through the Motherland in One Day

(Note Tibet and Nepal trek still to come!)

Guangzhou, my hometown

When I found out I had a 16 hour layover in Guangzhou (aka Canton) en route from Nepal to LAX, I thought, great! I'm going to town to eat! Now when people ask where my family is from in China, I usually give a generic "Village near Canton" because we are Cantonese. But when asked,  I realize that this response wouldn't fly here in actual Canton. Oops.

Ok, so after a 5:30 am arrival, there was much confusion at customs (of course), and I had to wait while they checked and double checked to see if I can be let in the country. Finally I am told that since my layover was more than 9 hrs, they'll give me a hotel room and I can get the free 1 day transit visa. Score. I check to make sure the hotel is metro accessible since I don't plan on spending my only day in Guangzhou in a hotel room. They assure me yes.  When I get to the hotel, I shower and want to leave. But I realize it's in the middle of nowhere suburbia! I didn't want to pay the $15 or whatever it was for a cab to the metro so after crossing many highways I finally find a public bus to the metro. Schlepping my small backpack with me I'm ready to eat!

So, I had no guide book for this city and only saved a few screen shots of neighborhoods and restaurants. I thought no worries, I'll have data on my phone at last. Except I forgot that Google or any standard search engine for that matter is blocked in China. So with no map, no direction, and no Chinese speaking ability, I failed for the first hour to navigate. But finally, determined I found bakeries and a local food neighborhood.


Noodle goodness for 7 yuan ($1)

I just went to the most popular stand with the locals and pointed to what they were eating. It didn't fail. By far the best thing I had here.

Meandering the side streets at lunch watching the locals. I think it was the fabric quarters.
More meandering. A rather calm city by China standards.

I managed to find a government hosted travelsite for Guangzhou which led me to...

Shopping district
With done extra time and yuan to spare, I gave a go at shopping. I scored at uniqlo of all places. Also bought a size large dress, because that's my size in Asia.

One day well spent in passing. I got tons of delicious baked goods (almond cookies, custard on-tots, Chinese rice crispies, sweet beef jerkey) two good meal, boba and dragonfruit smoothie. Overall, a great city to people watch and experience. Not touristy at all.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Rooftop of the World

Yaks Be here!

The first thing I booked on this trip was my tour in Tibet. Foreigners are not allowed to travel on their own, so I reluctantly looked up tour groups. I ended up going with Budget Tibet Tours. I was a little weary at first since it was cheap, but it seemed to offer the most freedom which I like. It turned out fantastic!

I did the 8 day Lhasa to Nepal Border Overland Tour. My research looked like it was brutal to go from Nepal almost straight to Mt. Everest Base Camp due to the rapid altitude increase, so going the opposite direction was perfect.

Lhasa (Day 1-3)

We actually got a lot of freedom to roam around Lhasa which we were surprised at. It turns out there were only 2 people on my tour. I was rooming with Sofia, an MD from Colombia studying acupuncture in China. We hit it off right away. Such a relief and so much fun!

Johkang Temple

Drak Yerp Hermitage: Temple embedded in the mountains
While we were at this temple, we heard an ominous rumbling followed by our tour guide shouting "Run!" Now that is never a good sign. So run we did, only to see rocks tumbling down on the path where we were.

Monk at work.
It's rare to get a picture of a monk inside a temple.

Potala Palace! The Dalai Lama's winter residence.
Inside Potala Palace
Tibetans walking the circuit and waiting for a sacred temple
Many Tibetans pilgrimage far to Lhasa to the temples. There were many people walking with their prayer wheels in the circuit around the old part of town in Bakhor.

Yak: In case you wanted to know what type of meat is for sale here.

Daily Monk Debate at Sera Monastery
There was a lot of clapping, but it didn't seem like too much debating. Very different than my expectations of an academic debate. It was a bit too orderly and questions/answer style. But who really knows what is going on?


Deliciously cheap street food!
Day 4: Lhasa to Gyanste (7 hr drive)

After some good time in Lhasa, we hit the road to explore Tibet. We made some stops for gorgeous scenery.

Sofia (my tour buddy) and me at Yamdrok Lake
When we were in town together, more than one person thought I was her interpreter. Little did they know that Sofia knows way more Chinese than I do.

30 km/hr Zone
With increased tourism, the driving has gotten out of control and accidents abound. To fix the problem, there are zones where they time stamp you entering and time stamp you exiting. You can't pass through in less than a certain amount of time (to prevent speeding). So, conveniently, everyone just takes a lunch break in the middle of these zones and lo and behold, we aren't going too fast!

Karola Glacier drive by
China started charging for tourist to stop at many of the natural sights. Sofia and I decided we didn't need to pay exhorbant fees for every sight so we just slowed down and snapped some photos and continued along our merry way.

Prayer flags

Prayer symbols at the entrance to the monastery

Pelcho Monastery in the town of Gyanste
It was interesting to learn more about the Chinese control over Tibet and how things both have and haven't changed in the recent years. The slogan "Free Tibet" now has much more significance to me. The oppression is still blatant. Censorship still powerful. Many Tibetans had to sneak out of Tibet to seek refuge for education in the neighboring countries of Nepal and India. Then, some sneaked back into Tibet in hopes of building a better life.

My tour group of one visa stamped in Tibet!
Day 5: To Shigaste and Tingri (8 hrs driving)
Tashilump Monastery in Shigaste
Casual conversation

Crazy crowding as the main hall was unexpectedly closing at noon.

Main (and only) road in the small town of Tigre
This was our last point before we entered in Mt. Everest region. So far, the hotel accommodations have been great. No internet, but nice beds!

Day 6: To Everest Base Camp (EBC)!

Approaching the highlight of the trip...
Rooftop scenery
Such a beautiful, yet harsh land. I definitely have respect for the natives here and there steadfast faith. It is a spiritual place for many. You really get a sense of the desolate beauty.
Kids walking the road. Used to be fine, but now with crazy drivers, there have been several deaths
Yaks be here!
Everest Base Camp! 5200 meters!
So we didn't hike here, but Sofia and I were wandering the mountain side of an hour when our tour guide came looking for us, shouting our name to the mountains. She picked us up and we were driven to the base. No stellar views today.

Day 7: Waiting for Everest before descending to Zhangmu (8 hrs drive)

After a night at Rongbuk Monastery, we awoke before sunrise to hopefully catch a glimpse of Everest.

From Rongbuk Monastery before sunrise. Where's Everest?

Just as we were leaving, she showed herself in all her glory!

Jeff, Sofia, Our guide and me

Crazy gorgeous drive descending towards Nepal. Amazing how quickly the scenary changes
We also stopped at 2 police posts and our vehicle was searched for any people we might be trying to smuggle out of Tibet. Nope, just us tourists.
Tibet/Nepal Border: Waiting for it to open
Friendship Bridge between China and Nepal that we walked across
So, turns out I'm racially profiled. Go figure. Even though I carry a US passport, the Chinese are suspicious of me. They pulled me aside for questioning at the border in both China and Nepal. They asked where I was from (as they hold my US passport). They also asked if I speak English or Chinese (as I only respond in English). They asked where my parents are from. The usual. Meanwhile, my fellow US citizen traveler who is Caucasian and 6 ft tall goes through with no problem. In fact, they politely ask him if he would like a stamp in his passport. We had the exact same visas and his passport was stamped in and out whereas there is no record of me entering or exiting.

Turns out there was a huge mud slide that blocked a section of the friendship highway, the only road between Tibet and Nepal. This happened at Day 3 of our tour but we decided to continue anyway. We didn't come half way across the world to not see Tibet! So we took a risk.

When we made it to the border, our options of returning to Kathmandu were
1. Helicopter ride to somewhere past the landslide for $200
2. Off road vehicle that may be able to go around landslide
3. Walk (maybe 6 hours?) with our luggage across the landslide.

Go Go Go!
We chose the most viable option #1. Of course when we get there, it is a madhouse. Our reservation was no where to be found. People were waiting for hours. Somehow, we befriended the right person, the manager of one of the majors helicopter companies, Simrik. He lived in the States so we bonded. Much to our surprise, the next helicopter that came in, our new friend was yelling "Go Go Go!" Before we know it, our bags were stashed and we were shoved into the front seat.

View of the landslide from my first helicopter ride, unwillingly

I would've never paid for a helicopter ride, so this ended up being an experience. We saw the massive landslide along with Nepal's lucious green valleys and mountains. We actually had no idea where we were going to land. Turns out we landed in a soccer field in Duhamel, a city about an hour outside of Kathmandu. We negotiated our $200 quoted price, paid in cash (and this is why you ALWAYS should have spare US cash when traveling 3rd world countries) and found a ride back to the city where our tour agency wanted us to pay again. Nope.

All in all, we made it back to Kathmandu pretty efficiently given the situation. No stranded nights at some border town. It was such as relief to be back where we could talk openly again and use that internet and even unblocked at that. Ah, a free world.

Mt Everest,
Tibet