Nov 132015
 

Got checked into the hotel around 6pm after a drive through Ulaanbaatar’s (also known as just U.B. by the locals) horrible traffic, and the room was much larger than expected. It was suffering from a bit of 70s hotel fatigue, but was large, super comfortable, and clean, and a reasonable temperature, so overall the Kempinski impressed me.

I walked the area around the hotel a little bit, finding a small grocery store, but nowhere I really felt like eating at. I was too tired to walk very far or get a taxi, so decided to try the hotel’s Mongolian restaurant for dinner. Went down, and only one problem…the restaurant was closed the night for a private event. Figures with my luck! The hotel felt relatively empty, but the restaurant was booked out. But never fear…the hotel has two other restaurants…BOTH Japanese! I guess it’s the “in” thing in Mongolia?

Started out with an eel salad, which was super, super tasty:

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What’s the local beer called? Chenggis of course…there was also Chenggis energy drink, etc…

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The restaurant even featured authentic decor and waitresses in authentic Japanese attire:

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Tableside grilled kobe beef filet…try not to be TOO jealous…it was absolutely amazing…the right level of marbling and fattiness:

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Crashed early, since it was going to be a very long day of touring with my one full day in Mongolia. Up early, and checked out the hotel breakfast which was included in my rate. Pretty wide selection of foods, but the quality didn’t look amazing. They did have some super tasty local dumplings, but the western offerings (especially the breads and pastries) were a bit lacking. That said, there were plenty of options so it was pretty easy to find something I liked. Plus, coffee came in individual small pots, and was pretty tasty!

My driver picked me up right on time, and he was driver and guide. Nice younger guy who’d actually studied in the US for a couple of years, and decided he wanted to go back to Mongolia. As we started to drive out of the city, the thing that surprised me was just quickly the quality of the road deteriorated. Yes, it was still asphalt, but pretty badly rutted to the point it seriously affected how fast we could go.

Our first stop outside town was a traditional rock gathering called an ovoo. The tradition is when you are traveling, you stop at the ovoo and walk around it three times, always in a clockwise direction. Historically ovoos were made of wood, and now lots of them are stones, wood, and miscellaneous…stuff. Our ovoo was also the home of several wild dogs. I love this shot with the clear blue sky behind:

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Our next stop was the 100 monks cave, where supposedly at one time 100 monks hid out during the Russian occupation. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t have a happy ending because they were eventually found and killed. My guide climbed to the top and went in, but I only went about 2/3 of the way up because the rocks were tricky, and I was still being careful with my shoulder post-surgery:

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Back to the bottom, we went across the road to visit with some local nomadic people…and their yaks!

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Their goats seemed fascinated by me:

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We drove a bit longer, and our next stop was a place called Turtle Rock. Note again just how amazing the blue skies are…and you can see why it’s called Turtle Rock…really does look kind of like a turtle!

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Not sure it looks as much like a turtle up close, but again, the wide open spaces, changing leaves, and the sky just wowed me:

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The view into the valley from Turtle Rock:

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At this point, my guide announced I should try the most Mongolian of activities and go for a horseback ride up to the temple at the top of the mountain. Now, keep in mind, it has probably been 30+ years since I’ve been on a horse. However, I survived the nearly 90 minute ride. I look much happier at the end than my poor horse:

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A regular Chenggis Khan I am:

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Having survived horsing around (see what I did there?), it was time to walk up to the monastery. There were something like 100 signs on the walk, each with a saying from the Buddha on them:

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Approaching the monastery. Amazing the leaves were so colourful in September:

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Inside the monastery:

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After a visit to the monastery and sitting and reflecting for 30 minutes or so, we started the trek back down the mountain. Scary bridge? No problem!

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On the way down, I spun the prayer wheel to see which of the 100+ verses I should meditate on:

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I spun lucky number 13, so on the way down, I stopped to contemplate it:

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After the monastery we drove a bit longer to a ger (the Mongolian word for yurt) camp for lunch. The accommodations were so luxurious I regretted not being able to spend the night ūüėČ

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View of the gers against the sky and hills:

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Mongolian food isn’t known for being very fancy and is generally very heavy – lots of dumplings, meat, etc, but the lunch was delicious. I thought I’d taken some pictures, but apparently I was too busy being polite and chatting with my guide who ate with me. It was a nice four course lunch at the tourist ger camp, consisting of a starter, soup, dumplings, and some fruit for dessert. Nice and filling and tasty!

After lunch we headed to our last stop, the Chenggis Khan Memorial and museum. In the middle of nowhere, it was build recently and seemed to be a prime attraction for tourists, including busloads of very noisy and rude Chinese tourists. It was so crowded, and they were so loud, that it made the whole thing unpleasant that I asked my guide if we could just hang back for 30 minutes and walk through after they were done. He was completely fine with this, and off we went.

First, the “largest boot in the world” – no clue why, but:

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Hanging in front of the giant Chenggis Statue:

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From below…yes, the shot above is from the “observation desk” on the horse’s back, lol:

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The museum was actually super interesting, and basically told the history of the Mongolian Empire and the Khans, including Chenggis. I had no idea the empire had been so vast at its peak, basically reaching to Europe and most of Southeast Asia as well. After spending around 90 minutes or so at the museum, we began the long flight back to UB. Toll booth on the way back into town:

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Gate/arch entering the outskirts of town:

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On the way into town, I convinced my guide to let me stop in Chenggis Khan Square for 30 minutes to walk around. Fun fact, wanna know why UB was founded where it was? Supposedly in Mongolian tradition, where your horse stops to pee is good luck. Well, Chengis’ horse stopped here and decided to take a leak, and voila, UB was founded. Not kidding, from MIAT magazine:

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Fun architecture:

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Sukhbaatar statue in the middle of the square:

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Local kids hanging out in the square:

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There were lots of booths set up too selling miscellaneous stuff. The architecture was also pretty wild and modern:

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Chenggis statue, yet again!

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Back to the hotel, where I finally got to eat at the Mongolian restaurant, which was honestly a bit of a letdown. It wasn’t bad, but certainly nothing special, and the food I’d had at the tourist ger camp was actually better. When I got back to my room, there were fireworks going off out the window:

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With that, the day was a wrap. I was super impressed how much I managed to cram into one day, especially considering we drove something like 300 km on roads that were often pretty awful. I can’t wait to go back some day for the Nadam Festival, but I feel like I made the best of a bad situation (thanks Turkmenistan!) and got a really good introduction to Mongolia. Next up, the long, long way home!

Feb 122015
 

Up early to do a bit more exploring in Tana before heading to the airport for my flight. I’m generally not a big fan of organized tours, but in this case I’m super glad I booked it. Despite only having three nights in Madagascar, this company packed a lot in when I told them I wanted to see as much as possible and they really did their best to not only be flexible when I changed what I wanted to do – but also to cram in as much as I wanted.

That said, early check out from the hotel and off to do a bit more touring. First stop was Haut-Ville, the part of the city built high in the hills overlooking downtown Tana:

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The National Stadium:

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After walking around the upper town for a bit, we got back in the car to visit a souvenir/craft market on the way to the airport. Lots of interesting little things, but nothing I liked so much I wanted to haul it around Africa for another couple of weeks. View of the river next to the market:

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Some of the market stalls:

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Check-in wasn’t open yet when I got to the airport, as it was nearly three hours until the flight. My driver was afraid of traffic jams, so wanted to be sure to leave plenty of time just in case. The queues to get to the check-in counters weren’t marked at all, so I had to ask around which one to get in. “Oh, and is there a business class one?” Nobody seemed to know. Everyone just sort of lined up, and waited. It seemed there were no mid-morning flights at all, but plenty of them around the same time as mine…as there were three different flights waiting to check-in.

As it got more obvious they were about to open check-in I asked a few security guard looking types where Air Madagascar business class line was. They just escorted me to the front, and I was first to the counter when check-in opened. No problems at all, immigration and security were a breeze, and soon it was time to see what the Air Madagascar Business Class Lounge was all about:

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There’s no pictures. For a reason. It was so dark in the lounge I’m not sure they would have turned out. It was also incredibly warm, despite the fact it was nice and cool outside. There was a fan…which I commandeered and pointed at my seat. There was plenty of beverages – coffee and espresso made to order, which the lounge attendant happily delivered. The internet kept cutting in and out, and was more or less useless. With an hour to go to flight time, I decided to go people watch in the terminal instead. Soon, my plane arrived:

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Feb 092015
 

Woke up way too early just after 6am, and met my friend from DC for breakfast before getting ready to head out on my tour. Driver picked me up as planned at 7:30 on the nose, and of course I got distracted catching up over breakfast so was running a little late. No worries, we headed out just before 8 to head to the east part of the island and find some lemurs! Traffic getting out of Tana was quite bad, and the joke the driver had was that it was the Lyc√©e Fran√ßais – not sure why this was so funny, but every time he encountered traffic that’s what he’d say. Pretty sure you can’t blame ALL the traffic on the French!

Soon we were clear of Tana, and winding our way over the hills/mountains towards Andisibe Park in the east of the island:

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Stop one was the Pereyras Reptiles Farm. After a short trek through the woods, we spotted our first lemurs, who came down from the trees…because we had bananas. Clever.

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Who wants a banana!

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After playing with the lemurs and taking pics, we headed to the chameleon enclosure. It was a bit too zoo-like for my tastes, but at least it guaranteed we’d get to see them since the chameleons can be really hard to spot in the wild. First up, a Parson’s Chameleon:

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…and a tomato frog…gee, I wonder how it got that name!

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BATS!

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I’d had enough of the zoo at this point, so it was back in the car to drive a bit further. We stopped at the edge of the park to get lunch, since it was already after 1pm at this point. Zebu in madagascar green curry…it was pretty tasty…especially the onions! …not to mention cheap. The entire meal with a beer was hardly $8.

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After lunch we kept driving, and our next stop was the Vakona Forest Lodge, where I’d be spending the night. Lanai to my hut:

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It was pretty basic inside, but much better than I’d expected. There was no AC, but the temperatures outside were reasonable enough that it wasn’t needed. The big downside, however, was the 99% humidity in the park. Everything was instantly damp, but hey, that’s what you get when you come to the rainforest! It had warm water on demand, was very comfortable, and all in all, for being in the middle of a tropical rainforest was all-around excellent!

The lodge has it’s own private island, which serves as a refuge for lemurs which had either been in captivity previously, or were in endangered areas. (ie, logging companies were destroying their land, etc.) Got in a small boat to cross the moat onto the island (literally 20 meters across), and I hadn’t been out of the boat for two seconds before this happened. This little brown lemur leapt right at me and jumped on my head. No warning at all, lol, I can see how this wouldn’t go over too well with some people…

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5 seconds later, he was joined by this guy:

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Apparently, they thought I was a tree.

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Lemur kisses!

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What are YOU looking at!

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After managing to pry the lemurs off me we got back in the boat to go down the moat a bit and look for more species. Next up was the golden sifooka:

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…and finally, the ringtailed lemur:

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Right after the ringtails, a torrential downpour started, and we paddled back to the car as quickly as possible, but still got soaked. That’s what happens in the rainforest I guess!

After relaxing at the lodge for a couple of hours, using the wifi in the main lodge, and having a couple espressos, it was time to head out on the night walk. We saw the two smallest species of lemurs – the mouse lemur and the dwarf lemur, but unfortunately they were too far away (and it was too dark) to really get pictures of them. We did get a few cool frog pictures, however:

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After walking in the dark for about 90 minutes I was exhausted, and had had enough, so it was back to the lodge for dinner. More Zebu stew and wild forest mushrooms. Every time I had Zebu, I kept thinking back to that old Simpsons episode where Lisa is trying to teach Maggie the alphabet, and Z is for Zebu…see Maggie? Zebu? With a hump and a doolap. Dooooolap.

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Slept reasonably well, although it felt like sleeping in a swamp the humidity was so high. Up early, decent breakfast provided by the lodge including eggs, bread, and fruit, and then it was off to the National Park to go lemur spotting. Our goal this morning was to see the Indri Indri which was the largest species. About an hour in, we’d seen a few more common brown lemurs and a couple of bamboo lemurs (so named because they eat bamboo) but no Indri Indri. We did, however, see a massive snail:

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…and another Parson’s Chameleon up close and in nature!

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…and this frog!

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After nearly four hours of walking, and consulting with other guides we ran into, we still hadn’t seen any Indri Indri. My guide (a local guide, not the one from my tour company) was growing visibly frustrated, and kept wandering into the forest for 30 minutes at a time looking for them and leaving us behind to stand around. It was pretty frustrating. I told him several times it really wasn’t that important we find them, but he refused to give up. Finally, he was really frustrated, and got out his cell phone and started calling around to all the other local guides.

A friend of his had spotted some Indri Indri at another Park about 10 minutes drive away, so he rushed us out of the National Park, into the car, and off we drove to another park. Another 15 minute or so hike into this park, and finally, there it was….way up in the trees. I needed the binoculars to get a good look at it, but he seemed happy since we could at least tick the box that we’d seen it and he could do his job. It was really cool, but probably not worth all the stress.

At this point it was after noon, so we piled back in the car to begin the drive to Tana. We weren’t hungry when we reached the restaurant we’d eaten at the day before, so I agreed we’d stop at a “clean local restaurant” which was really the only other option on the way back to Tana. I ended up having “steak” which was actually pretty good grilled in some sort of a sweet sauce with a side of fries for a whopping $4. Including a large bottle of water. Hah!

View on the drive back to Tana:

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Pretty bad traffic, and finally made it back to the hotel around 6pm. I rested up a bit, and it was pouring rain outside by this point, so decided to just have dinner in the hotel’s restaurant, since it looked like it had a decent menu. Tasty fois gras starter:

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Grilled fish with blue cheese sauce and veg:

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Mo√ęlleux au Chocolate with ice cream:

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Three courses and two beers? Yes, $21. I think Madagascar is by far the best value for food and lodging of anywhere I’ve ever visited. Every meal was under $25 and high quality, lodging was under $100 a night for solid three star standard, and everything was clean, comfortable, and most importantly all the employees seemed happy and well-provided for.

By this point I was seriously about ready to pass out having been up since 5:30, and crashed early, since we had one more morning tour before flying out.

Oct 292014
 

My ride was waiting for me when I exited immigration, and we were off to dive! Volker, one of the owners of Dive Timor was there to pick me up, and took me straight back to their dive shop / guesthouse / restaurant. I was staying at their guesthouse, which consisted of around ten different rooms/apartments/etc. It seemed the convenient option given my limited time, plus would help me to maximize diving time. In addition, one of the most popular restaurants in town was listed on TripAdvisor as being above their apartments, so seemed a win win.

Got to their location, and quick lodging check-in. They weren’t too full, so I ended up on a two bedroom apartment. Unfortunately, the air conditioner in the common area didn’t work, but the two in the bedrooms were quite strong so kept the whole place reasonably cool. For the price, it was a fantastic choice!

After about 30 minutes waiting for everyone to arrive, we packed up the scuba gear in the van and headed to the first dive site, Dili Rock West.

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I hadn’t been diving since St Kitts back in July, but really wasn’t nervous. I had my gear, etc, and the only nervousness was that this would be my first short dive. I’d never gone into the water from the shore before. Plus, being on the other side of the world was kinda cool. I guess after diving in Seychelles it shouldn’t have been a huge deal, but hey.

Plan was to walk about 10-20 meters into the water, and then try and get the fins on and head further out. Unfortunately, the waves kept crashing down on us, and I panicked a slight bit. Eventually managed to get things sorted well enough that we could descend, and once underwater things were zen and peaceful. Unfortunately, I’d wasted quite a bit of air at this point. Fortunately, I’d decided not to take my camera on the first dive, so I could really just focus on getting used to the water again and enjoying the coral.

I’d used a full 1/3 of my air at this point, and we were only 6 minutes in. I was kind of nervous I was going to be the reason we had to come up early (especially since I often am the first one out of air) but once I calmed down I started using the rest of it really slowly. There were only four of us diving, and two divemasters. Two beginners with one, and me and a guy doing his advanced certification with the other.

It was a good 45 minute dive, and I was excited for the second. We walked about 1/2 mile down the beach to “Dili Rock East” and got ready for the second dive. This one was much easier, because I knew what I was doing a bit better and how to fight the waves when getting into deeper water.

Almost right after descent was a cool lionfish hanging out:

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The reef dropped down to about 60 feet pretty quickly, and it was a cool view:

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Cool coral:

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Jul 262014
 

Woke up again at 630am after another solid 8+ hours of sleep feeling fantastic and went back to Rituals coffee for breakfast. Another great triple iced espresso, but instead of the bagel sandwich today they had amazing double chocolate chocolate chip muffins….yum!

Met Jeff in the lobby again, and Dive St Kitts picked us up right on time for another morning of diving. When we got to the shop, we learned we were the only two people diving today so we could get going as soon as all the gear was set up. Sweet!

Out first dive site was called “The Rocks” and the coolest feature is that the last couple of months a reef shark had been hanging around the site, and we’d try and find it. Strategy was to try and find a lionfish to spear, and then dump it on the ground and wait for the shark to smell blood. The dive was in a fairly narrow “channel” between two reefs, and dropped from about 50 feet where we entered to about 75 feet further down where we turned around and swam back on top of the reef.

It didn’t take long to find a spear a lionfish, and no sooner was the divemaster chopping it up, than this guy started circling:

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A couple of slow circles around us and the dead lionfish, and he darted in a snapped it up and swam away. ¬†For maybe the next 5-10 minutes he followed us around as we swam down the reef, probably hoping we’d feed him another easy meal. ¬†Laziest shark ever!

Along the reef:

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May 202014
 

I wasn’t really expecting this daytrip to leave at 6:30am…it’s probably a good thing I didn’t know that in advance, or I might not have booked it. ¬†I was beginning to seriously run on fumes by this point in the trip, but hopefully seeing Lake Titicaca would make it all worth it. ¬†I had to admit, though, as anyone who wasted time watching Beavis and Butt-head as a kid, every time I hear Lake Titicaca I still think of the Great Cornholio…lol

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Anyways, enough stupidity. Got to the lobby of my hotel at exactly 6:30, and there were no signs of life stirring yet. There was, however, a petite Bolivian looking lady wandering the lobby looking puzzled, so I asked who she was looking for. Yes, she was my guide…and the driver was on the way. This was all in Spanish, because up until this point she seemed extremely reluctant to speak English. She eventually warmed up, and we were underway.

It was about a 90 minute drive to Huatajata where we would pick up the hydrofoil across the lake. ¬†Although this was scheduled to be a group tour, there was nobody else booked from La Paz today, so I’d have the van to the hydrofoil all to myself. ¬†Additionally, the hydrofoil ride would be all alone, and we would pick up a large group of…you guessed it….Swiss tourists coming from Peru in Copacabana for the second part of the trip.

We made it Huatajata on time, after a long drive through the sprawling expanses of El Alto. ¬†Once there, there was a “museum” to see before starting the trip. ¬†When I was booking this, I discussed with several Bolivians I knew, and they all recommended to make the booking with Crillon Tours. ¬†Seems they had built much of the tourist infrastructure on the lake, including the hydrofoils, and had all the connections to make the trip the best possible. ¬†They’d even built a museum on Huatajata telling a bit of the history around Lake Titicaca, both before and after the arrivals of the Spanish. ¬†I was given 20 minutes to check out the museum while my guide got everything sorted for the hydrofoil. First highlight of the museum, a burial mummy:

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…followed by the arrival of the Spanish:

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Manco Capac, the first Incan incarnation of the Sun God, and his sister and Mama Ocllo in a traditional boat….

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Outside the museum were some friendly alpacas (or are they llamas?) ¬†just hanging around….

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Mar 212013
 


By the time we’d grabbed a small snack, the drizzle had turned into a steady light rain…not a good sign for our afternoon at Machu Picchu. ¬†Let me back up here and talk about tickets a bit. ¬†You can in theory buy tickets from the government website, but when we went the website’s payment portal was down for two straight week so we had no way to get them in advance except through our hotel. ¬†The hotel arranged them for us by credit card, and we were able to pick them up along with bus tickets when we checked in. ¬†There was approximately a $10-15 surcharge per ticket for this service, but it definitely beat being caught out in the rain with no ticket when we’d gone that far!

We took the bus up the very very windy road to the top of Machu Picchu, and the steady rain continued.  It was actually pretty miserable, but we did manage to walk around for about 45 minutes until the rain let up a bit.  A few views from the very top of the site, looking down over the valley:

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Nov 012011
 

So, this is going to be another mostly pictures post. After the bungee (and thanking God we lived) it was over to Victoria Falls to see what made this place famous. The falls were absolutely awesome. I thought they were easily comparable to Iguazu Falls in Argentina/Brazil in sheer size and volume, despite this being the low season. We only saw them in full from the Zimbabwe side, but they were incredible:

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Oct 152011
 

So, first a caveat. ¬†This is going to be mostly a picture post, but I think you’ll understand why after looking at the pictures. ¬†We had the entire day in Palau, and then a 1:30am (yes, in the morning) flight out of Palau. ¬†Plan was to make the absolute most of the day.

I’d been bothering the tour company that everyone recommended for months, and they said they only ran the tour with four or more people. ¬†One week out, still was just us…but they said they had two more, and we were set to go. ¬†With our good luck, when we got there, they were a last-minute cancel, so we had a private boat snorkeling tour. ¬†Excellent!

The plan was to head to Jellyfish Lake, which anyone who watched Survivor is probably very familiar with. ¬†We were super excited to see it…and anything else along the way! ¬†Fortunately, just being the two of us on the boat, the guides were awesome and took us to lots of great snorkeling sites!

Stop number one was at “the spa.” ¬†This is a place where the water is relatively shallow – maybe 4 to 5 feet in a bit of a cove, and the shells and animals have decomposed over years to form soft clay/mud on the bottom of the ocean. ¬†Dive down, scoop some up, slather it on yourself, rinse, repeat. ¬†It was pretty amusing, especially watching the giant boat full of Japanese tourists do it!

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Jun 212011
 

When I looked at the Travelers Century Club country list many years ago, there were several “countries” on it that I had no idea where they were. I was more interested in visiting “real” countries, but figured this was an interesting list from a geography geek point of view as well I was trying to figure out where in the world Spitsbergen was…and around the same time realised that there was also a marathon here….the northernmost on Earth. Perfect coincidence, and I knew I wanted to do it one day!

Fast forward a couple of years, and the June race date coincided perfectly with my work and other travelers, so one afternoon in Hawaii with Matt and family we decided we’d all head up there in June to see what it was all about.

Unfortunately, the week after the trip in Hawaii, I woke up one morning with a horrid shooting/stabbing pain in the arch of my right foot. After struggling with it for a week I headed in only to learn it was plantar fasciitis – basically a nasty inflammation of the tendon/fascia under the arch of the foot. Probably the result of spending way too much time wearing flip-flops lately, walking on the beach barefoot, etc.

My plans for finally running a sub-4 hour marathon quickly went out the window, and I was only concerned with getting well enough I could walk/finish this race. I went through two doctors and a variety of failed treatments, before seeing a doctor who was a legend in the local running community. A marathoner himself, he knew I wouldn’t take no for an answer, and would do anything he could to get me to the start line. Continue reading »