Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Kathmandu, Nepal: Flashback - April 2013

"Do one thing every day that scares you." - Eleanor Roosevelt

Inspiring words to live by and with that thought in mind, I buckled my seat belt ready to soar alongside the Himalayan Mountains. I had bought a ticket on an 18-seater, twin engine plane to take me through the Himalayas and as close as I could get to the highest mountain in the world: Mt. Everest, elevation 29,029 ft.

My stomach was in knots anticipating a turbulent flight due to the unpredictable mountain weather and recalling stories that this plane route was made notorious by several crashes over the last few years.

But as the jet ascended and I caught my first glance of the snow-covered peaks, my fears dissipated, and I sat in awe of the beauty surrounding me. The small plane swerved and climbed, turning into the range and kissing the peaks. I was invited into the cockpit for a few moments to take in a panoramic view - a thrilling and unforgettable adventure.
Nepal embodies the perfect collision of Chinese and Indian culture. Red, blue, yellow and white prayer flags sway in the breeze lining shop entrances, temples walls and homes blessing all who pass by. A backpackers paradise, the capital city of Kathmandu invites you in with its countless attractions and laid-back atmosphere. Entering into the city, the dirt-covered roads are filled with people, animals and commotion, and lined with market stalls selling everything from hiking gear, to cultural relics and colorful thangka art.

During my stay in Kathmandu, I was welcomed into the home of Michelle and Pujan Pradhan, the fun-loving owners of the Hotel Courtyard. The Courtyard, located in the Thamel district, served as a home base for me as well as for many skilled adventurers who were preparing for the harrowing 40-day climb to the summit of Mount Everest.

While in Kathmandu, I walked the Buddhist meditation grounds of the Boudhanath stupa gazing up in awe at the blue-eyed face staring down on me flanked with colorful cords of prayer flags. I conquered the steps of Swayambhunath, better known as the Monkey Temple, and weaved through the countless 'holy' monkeys to reach the top.

With its 518 temples and monuments, I spent an afternoon at the sacred Hindu Pashupatinath Temple complex. Dodging the sacred cows that wandered the grounds, I explored for a while before taking a seat alongside the Bagmati River. There I watched as six families prepared to cremate loved ones on concrete planks across the water. Wrapped in bright orange fabric, the deceased were placed upon the plank and lit on fire. Their family and friends solemnly watched as the ashes fell into the river and were swept away. 

From the Courtyard, I also hailed a bike taxi to take me to nearby Durbar Square. Much of which is now damaged or destroyed from the April 25, 2015 earthquake, Durbar Square is home to some of the most beautiful ancient palaces, temples and courtyards in Nepal. During my time there the locals were celebrating the Nepali New Year 2070. Durbar Square was alive with music and festivities.

Kathmandu is like nowhere else in the world: Asians, Indians and Caucasians living in harmony each carving out a parcel of the city to call home; adapting to the modern world while preserving ancient history and culture, and everyday being humbled by the majestic mountain ranges that govern the land.


Kiev, Ukraine: Pavlo & Pawlina - April 2015

"допоможіть! допоможіть!"

It was a foggy spring morning when eight-year-old Pawlina wandered the roadside leading her family cow with a rope to graze the dew-covered grass. She was caught up in day dream when she accidentally lost hold of the rope. The excited cow barreled down the road faster than little Pawlina could follow.

“Help! Help!” she cried out in Ukrainian. Tears flooded her eyes. It was her family’s only cow and now she, the oldest of four children, had let it run away.

Moments later, a young man appeared out of the fog leading Pawlina’s family cow behind him. Pawlina screamed in joy and ran to give the man a hug. Pavlo lived in the same small village of Skomorokh, but this was the first time Pawlina had ever seen the handsome 17-year-old.

Quite possibly that same cow was what brought the couple together twelve years later. Pawlina’s father graciously sold their family cow to purchase a ticket for Pawlina to travel to America. Pawlina was reunited with Pavlo in New York City where they married on July 16, 1916.

Pavlo Belej and Pawlina Kaspruk were my great grandparents born in then Austria-Hungary, which is now western Ukraine. The village of Skomorokh was destroyed in World War I, but rebuilt, and sits about 100 miles east of the Poland border, near the country of Moldova.

Pictured above: Pavlo Belej and Pawlina Kaspruk with their children Steve and Olga.
James and I were fortunate to visit the country of Ukraine this past week. While we were unable to reach the village of Skomorokh, we did have the opportunity to explore Kiev and experience the rich Ukrainian culture and history.

Kiev is a pleasant city with strong religious overtones. Ten miles walking took us over the cobblestone streets, through Independence Square, above the river Dnieper and near all of the decorated cathedrals. We pocketed a few hand-blown, painted eggs from a local craftsman and completed our visit by sampling various types of pierogies and feasting on Chicken Kiev.


St. Petersburg, Russia: Fast Facts - April 2015

The City. Upon arriving in St. Petersburg, proud locals may inform you that the city itself is an open-air museum. Best navigated by foot, the Hermitage Museum, Peter and Paul Fortress, Church on Spilt Blood, Winter Palace, Saint Isaac's Cathedral and other key sites are easily within walking distance from the city center.

Restaurants. Fine dining is redefined in St. Pete. Looking for a nice steak dinner? Go no further than the renown Stroganoff Steyk Khaus where you can choose the country your cow was raised and whether it was grass or corn fed. You will then be informed of precisely the waiting time for your perfectly cooked steak - 27 minutes for a medium-rare cooked filet mignon. For more casual dining, pop into one of the many restaurants or cafes on Nevsky Prospect, the main through street in St. Pete, where you may find a secret button under the table to buzz the wait staff for quicker service.

Putin. You won't manage many steps in St. Pete without gazing upon the stern face of President Valdimir Putin. Whether his stare is beaming down from a billboard or painted on the side of a building, his presence is undeniably felt in the city. You'll find classic Putin-themed goods in stores and street vendor carts including Putin's mug on coffee cups, a life-sized Putin head wearing sunglasses plastered on a t-shirt, posters depicting the president riding horses and motorcycles, and of course, various pocket-size trinkets to complete your Putin propaganda collection.

Airports. Leave your camera and alcohol at home. To my surprise, photographs are forbidden at the airport and consumption of alcohol is strictly prohibited on several flights from St. Petersburg. Seems counter-intuitive to me, but many of the rules and procedures appear to change in Russia depending on which way the wind blows.

Women. If you are under age 50, and even if you aren't, there appears to be an unwritten rule that you must don stiletto heels and a mini-skirt at all times. It doesn't matter the weather or if you are at breakfast, commuting to work or climbing a tower. The steeper and more painful-looking the heels the better. Make sure to complement your look with dark, heavy eye make-up and pouty lips. Never. Ever. Smile.

Hotels. The more stars associated with your accommodation, likely the more intrigue. It's not uncommon with the popular hotels to have fresh fruit in the rooms tended to hourly, monogrammed slippers by the bed and staff to attend to your every whim. One hotel we frequent employs facial recognition software so that every staff member can greet guests by name. In line with the incessant chatter of hotel rooms being bugged, a trustworthy local advised that for a price videos from your hotel room stay are available for purchase at reception.

Religion. Orthodox Christianity is the dominant religion in this part of the world with more than three quarters of Russians identifying with the denomination. While it isn't often spoken, it's been explained that Russian Orthodox Christians believe that the more you suffer the better place earned in heaven. This philosophy may shed light on the prevailing Russian demeanor, behavior and outlook.

Amsterdam, The Netherlands: Fields of Flowers - April 2015

In Holland, March showers bring April flowers. So we spent only a moment in the city - briefly viewing its famed canals and towers.

The countryside boasts gardens in bloom. Blanketing the land with rows of color - soon to be harvested for the world to consume.

Orange, yellow, purple and blue - blossoms tucked near waters and windmills. An afternoon stroll among the tulips is hours too few.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Havana, Cuba: A Romance with the Past - April 2015

I've never felt more suspect than when I boarded my first class flight to the Caymans - for the weekend - with no checked baggage - after laying down a $100 dollar bill for an ice coffee.

That's how the adventure to Cuba began. The route for the next four days would be: Hartford -> Atlanta -> Grand Cayman -> Havana -> Grand Cayman -> Atlanta -> Las Vegas.

As the plane touched down in Havana, my heart raced and my back stiffened. The cabin broke out in roar of clapping grateful for our safe descent. I gulped the last of my rum punch and walked confidently into Cuban Passport Control. Fully prepared to prove I was an accredited journalist which was one of the conditions that granted Americans a limited entry visa, I had the internet-procured identification card and lanyard badge in my pocket. As questioning began, to my dismay, it appeared I wouldn't have to flash my 'credentials' after all, and that my only obstacle was mandatory travelers insurance. I begrudgingly purchased the insurance, requested my passport not be stamped with a full-toothed smile, and skated on through.

Despite my phone, credit and ATM cards rendered useless, my visit to Cuba was well-worth risking my coveted Global Entry status.

As the Cuban propaganda invites foreigners to "enjoy a romance with the past," so I did. First I walked the streets of new Havana captivated by the 1950s American cars in vivid blues, purples, oranges and pinks honking their horns and puffing plumes of black smoke as they sped by. Later I took in a Cuban song and dance show, reminiscent of the "Buena Vista Social Club," before venturing to old town the next morning.

Walking into old town Havana was like stepping into 1950s America after a bomb had been detonated. There were remnants of a more prosperous time with stunning buildings, ornate architecture, and sprawling gated parks, but today its third world status and troubled history shown through. Most public areas and storefronts were in disrepair; the once neatly crafted cobblestone streets were dirt-covered and shattered, and the people seemed to meander aimlessly in the heat if not stopping to rest in the shade of a window ledge.

Map in hand, it didn't take long before I flagged down a bike taxi and in broken Spanish asked to be shown the sights. The friendly local obliged, and for less than $15 U.S., we spent the day touring the 2-million-person city: exploring the grounds of Castillo del Morro fortress and Cathedral de San Cristobal, stopping to check out the tank in which Fidel Castro fired the shot igniting the Bay of Pigs conflict, peeking into a Cuban salsa dance studio, admiring the women hand-rolling cigars, and sipping mojitos in an artsy neighborhood bar.

Somehow, without saying a word, it seemed that everyone could tell I was from the States. Old and young men alike yelled out "Obama" and "Miss America," while smacking their lips at me in a kissing gesture. Didn't they know Americans weren't supposed to be here?

My final feat was traveling back to the U.S. escaping interrogation, and that also went smoother than expected.

It was a picturesque few days in Havana and I'm thankful to have seen it before the U.S. sanctions are officially lifted. With it's savory music and vintage culture, Cuba clearly has an unshakable charm. I hope that despite the inevitable changes ahead, the nation and its people hold onto their identity while at the same time re cultivate the romantic past many still remember.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Tokyo/Nikko, Japan: Flashback - February 2005


With sidewalks elbow-to-elbow with fast-paced, chattering businessmen and school girls, streets crowded with passing cars and honking buses, and skyscraper walls alive with flashing neon lights and billboard-sized advertisements, it's hard to believe that the overwhelming feeling that enveloped me in city-center Tokyo was peace.

The first time I traveled outside the U.S. on my own was to Tokyo, Japan. A college friend had been teaching English there and I couldn't pass up the opportunity to visit.

During my ten-day visit to Japan, I experienced the neon jungle and commotion of the densely populated Shibuya district and walked the most traveled crosswalk in the world; explored thousand-year-old temples in Ueno Park; cast my sights on the spectacular scenery with Mount Fuji set as the backdrop; rode the extensive train and subway system frontways and back watching the men with white gloves push the masked passengers aboard; strolled through the vast seafood markets marveling at the daily catches being touted and thrown in carts; and ventured to the glass-bottomed top of the Tokyo tower with a breathtaking view of the city.

During my visit, we also took a winding road trip 140 km north to the mountain town of Nikkō. Nikkō hosts Tōshō-gū which is a myriad of temples and home to the Three Wise Monkeys: Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil and See No Evil.

When I reflect back on the trip that stirred my passion for travel, it is the feeling of peace that is most poignant. In today's society where we are invaded by noise and burdened by media and advertisements, walking through the congested streets of Tokyo with a population of 13 million, not being able to decipher the conversations, read the language or navigate my way, I felt the overwhelming comfort of peace. Protected and insulated in my bubble, for a moment, I wasn't bombarded by the world that surrounded me and I was free to take in the sights without distraction.