Beyond the views, the thing I could sense most clearly here was the utter stillness. Whereas earlier in the day I could catch wind of a few yak bells echoing up the mountainside, there was now only the whispers of a few gusts and my own breathing to stimulate my ear drums. With the clouds gone and the mountains stoic, the only perceptible movement was of the sun slowly drifting higher into the sky.
The previous night’s rain that pattered on our windows was snow at this slightly higher elevation, at first appearing as a light dusting on the dirt, then fully immersing the trail and causing tree branches to heave under the weight. Within just 30 minutes of starting, our physical effort was rewarded with surreal views of jagged peaks adorned with a fresh coating of snow. Here evergreen trees flourished; their pungent smells mixed perfectly with the sparkling white dusting to make the whole environment feel like our own personal winter wonderland.
As if to make up for the previous day’s weather, a soft morning glow graced the hillsides as we departed from Salleri and officially began 19 days of walking. At more than 2500 meters (8200 feet) in altitude, it took just a few minutes of walking until our fingers and toes started tingling. We paused to let the blood flow catch up with our bodies, taking in sweeping views of terraced hillsides and broad wooded valleys all funneling deep into a river that roared below.
In perfect proportion to the cramped streets were the tiny doors. Each one was so low that even the shorter Nepali people had to stoop to enter, so any hope of me squeezing through would require tremendous effort. Yet within each open door we could glimpse brief snippets of a calmer life: children playing marbles, women chopping vegetables, stray dogs curled up into tiny balls with just a single eye peeking open, and shopkeepers rearranging their inventory.
Out here surrounded by rural communities and nature we began to forget some of the mindsets of society that we had so gleefully left behind. As the afternoon came upon us and the boat docked, we disembarked for a walk along on the many riverside paths. Lined with houses ranging from unfinished construction project to beautiful villa, each and every local greeted us with a smile and a wave. The friendliness seemed to emanate off of them, leaving us with fond memories of this destination.
On Sunday morning our breakfast was framed by a mountain and a luscious garden featuring flowers with shades of purple, gold, red and yellow. The scenery foreshadowed a spectacular day in nature. An hour long bus ride from our guesthouse into the town of Munnar brought us through gorgeous rolling hillsides dotted with teal plantations and vegetable farms before depositing us in the dirty and hectic city center. But soon enough we were aboard a rented scooter, whizzing again through a calm country road.
Beneath our feet and above our heads, the entire tour was a constant reminder of the skill and craftsmanship involved in creating a building of such repose. Every single pillar was extensively carved, every single archway designed with unique details, and every single door told an entire epic’s worth of stories about the people of Mysore. Our path led along the cool and colorful tiles to an outdoor wrestling courtyard highlighted by two stone sculptures of snarling lions. The scene looked perfectly prepared for the next trial by combat from Game of Thrones.
From a sloping, boulder-strewn hillside sporting a dozen more pyramid-shaped temples and multi-story stone buildings, we got our first taste of Hampi’s unique landscape. Mounds of boulders rose to magnificent heights in the distance with precarious rock formations making it look like God had been making sand castles. By combining this bewitching view with the seemingly endless choice of temples and it became clear we were going to enjoy ourselves in this little enclave of history.
Friday morning I awoke early and went out on the prowl for some coffee. Walking through the quiet sandy backstreets felt like a lucid dream: locals greeted my curious gaze with friendly cries of “good morning”, streaming rays of sunlight peaked through the fronds of palm trees, and my nose eventually led my feet to a German bakery sporting freshly brewed espresso and baked croissants. With the town still slowly waking up and only the faint intrusion of a few motorbike honks cutting through the endless supply of bird song, I felt as though I had uncovered my own personal paradise.
Finally the journey was complete when we reached the tiny overrun town of Arambol. Whether your native tongue is English, Spanish, Italian, Russian, German, or Hebrew, you can be sure you’ll hear plenty of it amidst the diverse tourism community of this village. The industry runs on two distinct yet intertwined promenades. The main drag sports every possibly kitschy souvenir shop, budget restaurant, and motorcycle rental outfit your heart could ever desire. Meanwhile, the beach is a collection of bars, restaurants, and palm-roofed huts backed right up against the surf. Here is one of the few spots in the world where you can order a cold beer, an Indian dosa, or a hamburger at every hour of the day.
Join me on an exploration of the spectacular mushrooms and mountains of the Belgian Ardennes, a range just South of Holland. I set out on a hike in the region with Stefje and her family on a crisp fall day and we were amazed to see the wealth and diversity of mushrooms after a recent rain storm. Nature is truly bountiful!
Last Friday morning, Stefje and I bade farewell to the grey skies and perpetual cold of December in Amsterdam, transporting ourselves both mentally and physically to sunnier locales. Just a few hours later, we were walking on the beach outside the town of Albufeira in Portugal, happily reunited with our friends Diana and Luca a few months removed from their last sighting in Europe.
Deep turquoise waters confirmed our arrival in tropical paradise. Our room was cozily set within the confines of a collection of thatched-roof cottages and wooden lounge chairs, just 10 steps from the ocean. Before even taking a sip of my welcome cocktail I was neck deep in the salty waters, swimming against the current and basking in the afternoon sunshine that glinted across our view.
A fascinating amalgamation of Asian spices and Arabian architecture, European tourists and African local, dazzling palaces and decrepit ruins, Zanzibar's stone town is a clash of cultures. Dizzying alleyways connect brand new Hiltons and Hyatts with buildings that date back hundreds of years, when this island served as one of the first major trading ports in the Indian Ocean.
From one crested vantage point, Stefje and I paused and could count 20 different species of trees, with the knowledge that we were probably missing many more. The Eastern Arc mountain range consists of 13 unique and separate ecosystems, each one evolving parallel to the others. The natural result is that this small segment of Africa contains more species of trees than all of Europe and North America combined!
Although after three days on safari our eyes were feeling a little spoiled, I doubt anyone could become jaded enough to not appreciate what we saw next. Grazing on the side of the road was a herd of elephants: 3 adults, 2 adolescents, and a pair of youngsters not more than two months old. The babies were more interested in rough housing than placidly enjoying breakfast like their mothers. They explored the surroundings with their dextrous trunks, smacking each other playfully like a pair of human siblings.
Even lunch was a barbaric affair. As jeeps settled into a picnic spot, a proud baboon perched on a railing, exposing his impressive chest.A few minutes later he transformed from a calm observer to a wild beast. With reckless abandon and absolutely zero fear of humans, he catapulted over the railing, bounded onto a picnic table, scared the people away, and grabbed as much food as he could. By the time a guide came over to shush him away with a stick, he had a sandwich in his hand and a juice box in his mouth!
Perched in the hillside amongst a dense grove of trees was the perfect Austrian bar. As we reclined outside to soak in the spectacular panorama of the lake, music, shouts, and singing erupted from the packed interior. Inside the bar people had clearly been drinking since early in the day, providing a welcoming and engaging atmosphere that enchanted Stefje and me.