Back to the Beginning – Our Journey to Leh, Ladakh, Jammu & Kashmir, India

This title sounds a bit like “Trinity Park, Durham, North Carolina, United States, Earth, Milky Way, Universe,” which I found very amusing to list as my address in middle school. My travel diary for our Stok Kangri adventure – which was indeed to such a remarkably named location – starts this way: “My Fitbit claims it is 10 am but by now we having been traveling long enough I only have the vaguest idea. I believe it’s about 2 am Sunday in Orlando after I woke up on Saturday morning at 2:15 am.”

Kira the cat is uncertain about the backpacks

2:15 am was our planned wake up time. Yes, we were very paranoid about all that could go wrong between our house and the airport for a 6 am flight, not to mention the packing that remained to be done before we boarded our Uber. What? You don’t think it’s a good idea to go to a cocktail party the night before a big trip?

After quite a long wait at the airport – because nothing did go wrong – we made it to JFK, and boarded the same Emirates flight to Dubai that we took last year on our way to Nepal. It was probably the same plane. The flight was full, lots of Indian families traveling back to visit relatives over the summer holidays. I read; watched two movies, including The Shape of Water; and crossed Northern Europe and Russia on the way to the UAE. Fortunately we didn’t have to change terminals this time, although it was still quite a substantial walk to the gate. We boarded our next flight in good time and were on our way to Delhi. Turns out New Delhi is really just a portion of the ancient city of Delhi. Hence the use of both names. For those of you who have asked.

The views upon the takeoff from Dubai are so strange. Canals carved in the desert resembling tattoos.

Once we arrived in Delhi we knew to look for the e-visa line thanks to our travel companion S who’d arrived a day before and encountered no queues there. We were duly met by our Delhi group leader and transported to the Ashok Country House hotel. We passed numerous chain stores (like Benetton), all closed as it was Sunday. “Normal” looking stores were interspersed with carts and people selling anything you could imagine. The hotel was dated and a little quirky but perfectly nice, and we went off to the pool to meet our fellow trekkers. It was 112 degrees Fahrenheit. Our group ranged from two 61 year olds down to two 27 and 28 year olds. Four from the US and seven from the U.K. All of us seemed quite compatible and we shared a few Indian beers. We all found it remarkable that the alcohol content was given as a range – a “light,” which was “up to 5%” or a “strong,” which was between 5.2 and 8%.” Did that mean a light could have 0?

Our wake up call the next day was 4:30 am and we were off to the domestic airport in Delhi for the hour and a half flight to Leh. In contrast to Katmandu, there weren’t any monkeys at the airport, though. See Leaving for Lukla or Monkeys in the Airport. I think we were the only westerners in the entire plane. At the Leh airport we met our guide, R, who was from Ladakh. There is a big military presence – soldiers with scary looking guns everywhere and signs warning if you violated the rules you would not just be shot, but shot dead. You could tell we were near disputed borders. Ladakh was its own kingdom until 1834 and its residents are very conscious of having a separate identity from India. It’s largely Buddhist, and shares a lot culturally with Tibet. The Dalai Lama was to visit while we were in India, over his birthday, no less, and his was cause for great celebration.

Ladakh is very barren, a high plateau landscape. A few planted fields separated by poplar trees. Our hotel, the Hotel Mogol, had a rooftop cafe, a restaurant, and our room was large. It worked.

Our first day in Leh – which is at around 11,000 feet – was supposed to be spent acclimatizing. One reason we picked this particular guide company was a really good acclimatization plan. We were to have several days hiking around Leh before starting the trek and climb. Day 1 involved lunch, beers, a nap, and a yoga class at the Mahabodhi Yoga Center for several of us. It was remarkably similar to a US yoga class and felt very familiar.

Mahabodhi Yoga Center

Afterwards, we met R for a very rapid stroll to the “market” and the “local market.” Streets were covered with rocks, mud, motorcycles, people, mangy dogs, all vying for a spot. Lots of cafes and guest houses. Leh is bigger than you would think from its population figures, and we were there during the tourist season for visitors from the rest of India. According to R, after Ladakh was featured in a 2009 movie called “3 Idiots,” it became a popular tourist destination – which has brought benefits but also increased trash, not to mention the noise pollution of hundreds of rental motorcycles cycles revving their way along the main streets.

The hotel served dinner at 8 pm. There was hot water in our rooms between 6 and 8 am and 6 and 8 pm. We had another couple of days ahead of us to explore monasteries and visit the second highest drivable pass in the world at 17,500 feet.

Life was good. And, as you’ll see soon, there was to be an oracle in our future.

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Work Wanderings – A Tour of the Eastern Seaboard

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I’ve been fortunate that mostly I haven’t had to travel for work. I’ve been able to reserve travel for days of vacation where email chains me only because I allow it to. This is a good thing, because I’ve never successfully merged a business trip with pleasure on the side.

So when I faced an absolutely horrific week of work travel, I thought it might be time to don my big girl pants and not allow myself to wallow in misery for the sake of doing so. I had just returned from Cincinnati two weeks before, where my client and I stayed at a hotel that barely met the standard of a Best Western in a very small city.  The room had the classic under window heating/air conditioning unit that chug chugged away all night like the little engine that could.  Eventually I just turned it off.  And let’s not forget the restaurant that was unable to manage more than six or eight people at a time, leaving me to eat a black bean veggie burger at the bar. The server wasn’t at all sure they still had them, and I did have the feeling that steely icicles had only recently been microwave melted from the patty. Believe it or not, the convention of the moment – because it was a true convention hotel – was for pastoral music ministry. I kept hearing people hum How Great Thous Art as I went up the elevator.

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So after Cincinnati I had a one week break in Florida and it was back on the road again. Left on a Sunday for Buffalo, New York- a place I had never been before. The highway from the airport was lined with bright orange daylilies. I stayed at the Hotel at LaFayette. It turns out boutique hotels are no more expensive than a Hilton Garden Inn. The hotel, in the midst of slightly rundown mid city Buffalo, was built in 1902 by the first female U.S. architect. It had a beautiful central staircase, and a brewery down below. My room looked out onto a public terrace, which left a bit to be desired from the privacy perspective, but it was huge and cool and the muted colors – a grey toned Italianate poster filled the whole wall over the bed – and provided a respite after a long day.

After a return trip that took me through Detroit back to Orlando, on Wednesday I took off again, this time for Northern Virginia. Flying into Dulles, stops in Fairfax and Falls Church. And once my work duties were over, it was time to drive – starting st 7:30 at night – to Richmond, Virginia, the site of the next work obligation.

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Arriving at 10, I stayed at my second boutique hotel of the week – aptly named the Quirk. It is a converted department store, themed around pink. There is original art work in each room, the mini bars are in pink retro mini fridges, and the bathrobes aren’t terry cloth but a lightweight cotton calico.  The ceilings were easily 15 feet high.

Before I returned to Orlando, I got to have lunch with my niece G, a recent Virginia convert from California, at the Kitchen on Cary. And yes, I really did have a sandwich that involved fried green tomatoes, Virginia ham, and pimento cheese.

I didn’t manage a whole lot of steps or much training at all last week. But driving back down 95 South to the land of the pines (for you Wagon Wheel fans out there) – through the green kudzu entwined forests, close to North Carolina – I felt so at home. I haven’t talked a lot about North Carolina on this blog. I may have just hit the point where I have lived in Florida over half my life – but I still call North Carolina home.

But knowing where home is just makes adventure the more exciting. Next up – we think we’ve found a 20,000 foot fairly non-technical mountain.

Leaving for Lukla or Monkeys in the Airport

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Twenty years ago, Husband J and I and our dear friends M and S used to sit in restaurants with small children in tow (who were frequently vying to see which of them could engage in the most dangerous dinner table activity involving condiments) and fantasize about the exotic trips we’d take once we were empty nesters. We started small – with St. Augustine, graduated to Iceland and discovered we actually made good traveling companions – and now I write this from Namche Bazaar in Nepal on our trek to Everest Base Camp.

But first things first. How did we get here? After enjoying a night at a hotel at the Hyatt, courtesy of our daughter A, we got up at the ungodly hour of 2:45 am to check in for our flight to JFK. At least we could return to our rooms after. At JFK we had the pleasure of the Airtrain tour of the whole airport since it turned out going from terminal 5 to 4 required visiting every other existing terminal first. Tours of the backsides of airports ended up being a theme of the trip.

Emirates lived up to its name, free drinks, good food and an unending supply of movies. After 12 long hours our gigantic Airbus descended in Dubai as gracefully as one of the egrets on Lake Ivanhoe. And we could even see the landing through the cameras affixed to the outside of the plane.

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We took yet another airport tram – this time to circumnavigate the airport in a short 45 minute journey from terminal 3 to 2 with a visit to terminal 1 thrown in for good measure. Terminal 2 was a far cry from the rarified and modern Emirates terminal. It was teeming with people, all wearing every variety of regional dress of the Arab world imaginable.  As usual, I realize how provincial we are in our outlook. Where were the groups of men in white robes, wrapped a bit the way the Masai wrap their cloaks, from? How about all the men in long cotton shirts, sitting barefoot in lotus position? And the group of ten or so women lying on the floor, completely encased in their black burkas, with one older woman awake and sitting guard over them?

Finally our four hour layover ended and we boarded FlyDubai for a four hour flight to Katmandu. I had the pleasure of sitting next to someone who immediately fell asleep and hogged the entire armrest, not to mention part of my chair. More about him later. There’s a karma story coming.

After finally getting some sleep on the plane, we landed on time in Katmandu. Fortunately we didn’t face another airport tour. Hint to travelers – get your visas before you arrive! It was the equivalent of a TSA pre. Our duffel bags all arrived as did our guide, Z.

Katmandu traffic is insane. The city was packed, people selling wares along the street, tiny shop after tiny shop. Hordes of motorcycles weaved between vans and vehicles, for all the world like a motorcycle gang out of Mad Max.

It took close to an hour for what we learned the next day was only a 20 minute drive. Finally turned into what I think was a more elegant section of town (it was dark) and to the very nice Yak ‘n Yeti Hotel. We had a lovely quick meal at the bar – and then spent another hour repacking and reweighing everything to get our luggage down to 15 kg. They are serious about the weight on the flight to Lukla.

A 5 am we journeyed back to the airport. It was a scene of chaos. Trekkers, guides and monkeys (yes, monkeys) running through the airport getting ready to board the 20 person flights to Lukla. Well, not the monkeys. Went through at least three metal directors and M and I kept getting relegated to the special women’s line – but never had to remove shoes and no one worried about liquids.

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The plane ride lived up to its reputation. 20 people, 10 a side and an open cockpit. It turned out we were one of the last flights out – the rest were canceled for weather reasons. We flew between sharp green mountains , clouds floating around us, and eventually a glimpse of the high snow covered Himalayan peaks, pasted against the sky like white jagged metal.

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Landing in Lukla is like landing on an aircraft carrier. The runway is short and if the pilot doesn’t make an immediate right turn you’ll run into the side of the mountain.

We deplaned, found the bathroom (first rule of travel – go to the bathroom whenever you get the chance), and had a cup of tea at a nearby tea house. We were ready to trek.

 

 

West Orange Trail – Starting from the Other End

Pedestrian Bridge Over Apopka's Main Street
Pedestrian Bridge Over Apopka’s Main Street

Saturday presented with a solid drizzle of rain from dawn to dusk and thereafter. What better occasion than to try out some new gear to check how waterproof it really was.

Husband J and I decided a few more  miles on the West Orange Trail would be an appropriate testing ground. But this time, instead of starting in charming Winter Garden, we decided to begin our hike 22 miles away at the other end of the trail, just outside of Apopka. We have a goal of ultimately walking the whole thing in one fell swoop, but before we do so we thought we should have walked all its pieces.

The trailhead on the eastern end is nothing short of unimpressive. Literally nothing but a small sign marks the trail, which runs along a busy commuter road, and it’s hard to tell where the regular sidewalk ends and the trail begins. It’s equally mysterious why that particular point was selected – there’s certainly no distinguishing characteristic. There are a couple of strip malls, populated by places like “Beef O’Brady’s,” Pizza Hut, a grocery store and the inevitable 7-11. And no parking – except for the strip malls.

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After a couple of miles of cars whizzing past, we were glad to turn down a side street where the trail finally diverged from the roads. It wound back behind several schools in a wide concrete band, at one point on a well-built boardwalk that meanders past a deep gully, unusual for Florida. There were some houses tucked behind it and I couldn’t help but wonder what the bear population was. For those of you not from Florida, black bears have developed their own suburbs in all of Orlando’s outlying areas. As the boardwalk ended, we passed a huge Seventh Day Adventist church and several expanses of open land. It was not clear if they are parks, grounds of commercial establishments, or simply placeholders waiting for development. And there is some topography- there is at least one real hill and by the end of he trail, my Map Your Walk said we’d gained a whopping 65 feet.

The trail finally reaches the town of Apopka itself. A pedestrian bridge, shown in the top photo, crosses Main Street. There’s a restaurant called the Catfish House right by the bridge – which looks as though it would be an appropriate place for celebration when we finally do the entire trail. And it looks a lot more interesting than the Duncan Donuts, which appears to be the other food choice.

Next West Orange Trail hike – well, we still have about 12 or so miles before we’ve walked all of its bits and pieces. I’m hoping for a little less 4 wheeled traffic on the next part. As for the gear – it worked admirably. Patagonia Alpine climbing guide pants repelled water just as advertised and my new hiking boots – yes, after five years I have a new pair of Renegades by Lowa – continue to get broken in. And just as well – because the weather reports for Iceland – where I will report from next week – indicate snow every day!

An Ode to Airports – Terminals Aren’t Terminal

When I started this blog last April, one of my first posts was entitled, “Where am I going and where have I been?” It was made up of exactly one photograph, as at that point I was still working my way through the intricacies of things like figuring out that a tag wasn’t a piece of paper with a price written on it (and was a far cry from a backyard game).

But a layover at the Miami airport this weekend provided the perfect graphic to answer that original question – at least for the next six months. As I looked at exotic destinations on the departures screen, many much more exciting than my 40 minute jaunt back to Orlando, I saw the below:

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Where am I going? Quito, listed there near the bottom. (Or Orlando, depending on your time frame, shown just at the top of the screen.) And where have I been? Well, Raleigh-Durham – where I grew up – appearing right under Quito. (Or Orlando, once again, depending on your frame of reference.) For the record, “Raleigh-Durham” is a misnomer – I grew up in Durham!

Airports are like that. You can smell the adventure waiting at the other end of a flight. I still find it remarkable that 100 plus people can be sent 30,000 feet high at over 500 mph. At an airport, you can sum up the where you are and where you want to be in one screen shot.

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Another example – note the Havana, Cuba destination. I’m not sure I can recall ever before seeing Havana listed on a departure screen, much less right above Houston, Texas. What better way to show a shift in geo-political realities.

When I was growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, my family always arrived at the airport dressed in Sunday best and several hours before any scheduled departure. My brother and I regarded the waiting at the airport as much a part of the trip as the actual journey. I still remember the iconic TWA terminal at JFK, and how slick and modern Dulles Airport was, rising out of what was then a rural area outside of Washington.

Photo by Joe Ravi, lic. CC-BY-SA3.0
Photo by Joe Ravi, lic. CC-BY-SA3.0

As the reality of the Cotopaxi and Chimborazo climbs sets in (right now I am at the slightly terrified stage), I just need to take it one step at a time. And after the training – the next step is going to be at an airport. And whatever happens, I know that when I set foot in one of those ultra modern terminals, it’s not a terminal in the sense of an end. Yes, it will evoke memories of where I’ve been – but even more excitement over where I’m going.

Fly Like An Eagle

Summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii
Summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii

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One reason I am enamored with altitude may well stem back to airplane trips taken early, early in my life. These started in the 1960s, when my mother, sometimes accompanied by my father but frequently on her own, would take my brother and me to England to visit our grandparents. In my earliest memory, I was four and my brother was two. I don’t remember much of that trip but from then on, I have much firmer recall. By the time we were six and four, my brother and I had realized that the coloring books dispensed by the flight attendants – then called stewardesses – made fine swords and the little Pan Am wing pins were potentially even better weapons to use against each other.

But, fast forwarding to the 1970s, my interest in how to torment my brother on long airplane trips had ceased to be my major in-flight activity. In those days you had to pay for headphones, which would enable you to listen to the single movie being projected on a drop down screen or the few “radio” channels assembled by the airline. This was an expenditure my parents saw as completely needless. Undaunted, however, my brother and I soon learned that if you pulled your armrest up to your ear you could actually hear the movie and the music – albeit risking a crick in your neck and not a very good sight line for the movie.

That particular flight – we must have been returning to the United States because it was day – the sun shone through the plane window, there were a few layers of fluffy clouds below us, below all that the Atlantic Ocean stretched as long and blue as my eyes could see, and the Steve Miller Band’s “Fly Like An Eagle” was playing through my armrest. I must have been somewhere in my teens. There above the clouds I felt safe – yet utterly free, unleashed of whatever cares pulled at me from far below. I was conscious, even then, that I would always remember that moment.

And to this day, when I board an airplane – despite the waits on the Tarmac, the ever narrowing plane seats, and the ever broadening list of things you have to pay for – I still hope that once above the clouds I’ll recapture that same feeling of serenity. Very occasionally I still do. But maybe that’s really why I climb mountains. Looking down from the summit at the rolling surf of clouds below gives a lightness to your soul that rarely happens anywhere else.