In January, I went to Cuba. I ended up there for a service trip with 12 other people all 20 years or more my senior. We didn’t really know each other…at first. But, when you spend 10 days in close proximity with a small group, it’s difficult not to get to know each other. The stories I heard were magnificent and horrific and adventurous and beautiful and true. I love true stories.
First came the stories from the patio of our accommodations at Matanzas. The patio, chairs and tables were all made with concrete and tile. We sat in these chairs for breakfast, lunch, dinner, devotions, lessons de espanol, and seated yoga practice. Over wine and rum, we had our first tastes of beans and rice, rice and beans, beans over rice, and rice mixed with beans. We played dominoes, learned to Cuban salsa, and shared stories. Stories of personal planes and flying to another city for dinner. Stories from a marriage with 30 years of abuse and two trips to the emergency room. Stories of working the football sidelines to direct the commercial breaks for televised games. Stories that brought us together.
We learned all about each other, and together we learned all about Cuba and its people. We learned about the strong bonds amongst Cuban communities. We learned how they support each other, how they laugh together, how they share. They work with what they have and what they have is enough. We shared crafts with women, children, and people with disabilities. And you know what we learned there? How creative they are and how artistic. How playful and fun. How readily they smile. How thankful they are for smallest of gifts. We learned what a beautiful people they are in Cuba. They introduced us to their families with pride and invited us into their spaces with grace and humility. They included us.
We delivered food to some of the families with disabilities. At one house a grandmother took care of her severely disabled, 35-year-old grandson who had the strength of a man. Their house was all concrete with no furniture in sight. Sometimes they couldn’t get the medicine for his kidney condition, and he would jump and yell to try to help the pain. When we came, his pain was great. His grandmother tried to calm him, her tiny body taking the brunt of his misunderstanding. When our guide gave her the food offering, she asked him why he always brought something when he came.
We came to know Cuba in a different way than most people. We still saw many of the beautiful sites. The turquoise waters and pristine beaches of Veradero. The fancy mansions and hotels of the past when the mobs ran the island. The old town of Habana (Havana) with its Spanish facades painted colorfully. The famous Malecon seaside walk. The street art. The music. The dancing. But we also saw great faith and great feats. We saw strong families and beautiful people. We heard amazing stories and the history of their people. It was truly an amazing story to learn.
On the 10th day of trekking, we ate lunch with Tenzing’s mother-in-law’s sister and had the opportunity to see how a real Sherpa woman lives.
The two-story house catered to functionality. The walls consisted of carefully stacked rock for the inner walls and wood for the exterior walls. Hay covered the first floor, and yak dung, smashed into small circles to use in the fires, rose in a neat floor-to-ceiling stack in one corner. Wood for the fire, precisely chopped and organized, filled one entire wall. She used this floor to store necessities for the entire year, including the family yak in winter.
A steep wooden staircase lead to the upper floor, which resembled an efficiency unit – it was open and housed everything a family would need to call this one-room house a home. One wall held the wood-fired stove and kitchen area. Two walls contained open shelves from floor to ceiling that stored everything from cooking supplies and food to toiletries, clothes, and blankets. The fourth wall had windows and wide benches with tables in front of them. The benches, used as seats for the tables during the day, became the family beds for sleeping at night.
The bathroom, of course, was outside. It consisted of four wooden walls with a covering on top, built out from a hillside. The floor had round branches, each about two inches thick, laying side-by-side, except for a one-foot gap in the middle. Below the gap, piles of hay and leaves awaited whatever may be falling between the gap in the branches.
We took our turns in the toilet before going into the house for lunch. Once inside, we sat on benches along the windowed wall, watching hot tea steam before us on the little tables. We drank in the warmth and waited to eat the amazing food that this tiny lady, always smiling, prepared for us.
The first course was a traditional meal of potato pancakes with fresh yak butter and spicy yak cheese. It was amazingly delicious and fresh. The potatoes grew in the garden across from the house and the butter and cheese came from her yak. For the second course, she made dahl baht – a lentil soup eaten over rice. Every tea house on our trek offered it, but this dahl baht tasted better than any we had previously. We ate as much as our bellies allowed, and then thanked her enthusiastically and left to continue our journey back to Lukla.
Before arriving to her house, we asked Tenzing her name and for a while, he couldn’t remember. Of course, we thought it odd, but then he explained that in both Nepali and Sherpa culture, they never use people’s names -in Nepali it’s actually rude. They call each other by their relationship. So when meeting someone for the first time, they guess if they’re older or younger and call them uncle, aunt, older brother, older sister, younger brother, or younger sister. It makes sense. If you’re Sherpa, you are family.
Every Sherpa’s last name is Sherpa. Like the yak wool gloves I purchased to keep my hands warm, the families are tightly knit. The Sherpa people stay connected no matter where they are in the world. Tenzing’s sister studied and trained with the family that owns the Sherpa House in Golden, CO, (my current home) before opening her own restaurant, The Himalayan Kitchen, in Vermont. It’s amazing to me that they can stay so intertwined over such long distances. It is a lesson to me in my travels.
Little black dress? Check. Zero degree sleeping bag? Check. Camera for photography workshop? Check. Cute high heals? Nope. Umbrella? No room. I tried to pack only what I thought I would need for a trip that covered everything from chic city dining to days of showerless trekking. Then I boarded a plane to visit friends in a city new to me, Chicago.
My dear friend Gaston picked me up from the airport and proceeded to make a home-cooked meal upon my arrival to the city of food. It was truly a treat as he grilled the chicken on his indoor parilla and asked questions about what I had packed and prepared for the trip to Nepal. He was going on this photography adventure as well. I spread all of my gear on the bed so he could see exactly what I’d packed and then left to connect with three amazing friends from my Nicaragua yoga teacher training. Hannah, Heather, Masin and I had shared so many special moments in Nicaragua that upon seeing them – even though it had been a year or more, I felt instantly at ease. Hannah, Heather, and I met first, sharing stories over fancy biscuit sandwiches and coffee, and as our cups emptied, we fell into comfortable conversations of present, past, and future. We made plans for the rest of my time there and left our outdoor picnic table as the weather threatened an influence. And it did influence my time in Chicago. It rained as Gaston cooked his famous Argentinian asado on his outdoor grill while we all drank wine and chatted in the kitchen. It snowed as I ran down the street in capris to take a yoga class at Masin’s yoga studio. It cleared and cast rays of sunlight as we chatted about life in Hannah’s apartment. It blew cold as we went to Girl and the Goat for some tasty Chicago cuisine. And it changed quickly from one to another. but it did not change the warm company of good friends. I left Chicago knowing that I would be back for another visit.
Gaston and I flew on the same Etihad flight to Abu Dhabi and the home of the beautiful Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque. We decided to attempt our first photography shoot at sunset at this amazing site. We shot into darkness, and I learned more than anything just how much I didn’t know about photography. We left and had dinner at a tasty Lebanese restaurant before exhaustively going to sleep. The next day was my birthday, and it was a great treat to sit in business class for the five-hour flight to Kathmandu. I ate beef tartare and drank champagne and then couldn’t stay awake. When we arrived, we sorted through buying our visa and then met Joel and Tenzing, our guides for the adventure. I originally met Joel, an amazing photographer (http://www.joeladdams.com/) in the Dolomite Mountains of Italy while he was trying a new photography workshop with a couple from Utah. He told me about this trip (through Italy Workshops), and I was intrigued. Joel had been to Nepal several times, and while filming a documentary on corneal harvesting, met Tenzing. Tenzing was our Sherpa guide. He had developed his guiding skills over many years of working with family members and growing up in the Himalayas. He took his family to Vermont for ten years, where he learned English and owned a business, and then, missing his home country, returned to Nepal.
Joel and Tenzing took us to the Kathmandu Guest House to drop our bags, and then we ventured into the city for our first taste of Kathmandu chaos in Thamel. Tight streets, traffic, people, shops with wares hanging and setting outside, motorbikes, bicycles, lights, signs, smells, and sounds. The activity seemed ceaseless. We got a few groceries and went back to the hotel. Then, I crashed into a jet-lag induced sleep. The next morning we started our photography workshop over breakfast – learning about aperture priority, ISO, and shutter speed. We gathered our cameras and in the next two days went to several temples: The Golden Temple of Patan, Swayambhu Monkey Temple, Pashupatinath, and Boudanath. As we learned to make adjustments to our cameras for better pictures, we also learned about the culture of the area. The earthquake damage to some of the older buildings still remained in devastated crumbles. Sadhus, holy men, live in some of the damaged temples. Many are yogis that have removed themselves from normal society to pursue the highest form of liberation from the material world. They have a distinct dress with long dreadlocks and do not work. So, they get food from donations. People also donate money to the living goddesses, kumaris, who live at the temples. These living goddesses are young girls chosen to be goddesses based on very strict qualifications and their horoscope. Giving blessings and healing sickness, they are believed to be the embodiment of a female deity. They are only allowed to go outside for certain festivals, their feet cannot touch the ground, and they are tutored to receive their education. Hindus and Buddhists both believe that when the girls begin menstruating, the deity leaves their body. Their time as living goddess then ends, and they return to regular society. The society as a whole is an interesting mix of the Buddhist and Hindu religions. The cultures collide in a mixture of tradition with spinning prayer wheels, lighted prayer candles, and prayer flags all over the country. We captured and experienced a few of these unique scenes within the city of Kathmandu. It is a place I will never forget.
Originally I planned to leave Chile a bit early to go skiing for a few weeks in Colorado and use the ski pass I bought back in May 2015. It was a perfect plan to return and get a few extra days at higher altitude before going to Nepal to hike to Everest Base Camp. And then, my plan changed. As I sat in the front left position of the large yellow raft I was helping to paddle, the entire left side of the raft jumped and the thwart under which I had secured my right foot dislodged. I found my left foot stuck in the foot cup attached to the floor and my knee in a little twist. I didn’t realize it until we finished our Class V rafting day in Inferno Canyon that I had injured myself. I limped around camp still leading yoga, still giving Thai massage, and yes, still rafting. I wrapped it and applied salves from bottles that had directions in languages that I could not understand – all in hopes of getting some relief and healing. In the end, I decided not to board the early bus to Bariloche, Argentina, for hiking or to go to Colorado to have a few more days of skiing. Instead, I loaded my stuff in a red Hilux pick-up truck and traveled with seven Peruvians (and Derek, one of the river guides) from Bio Bio Camp to Santiago, Chile. Our caravan included two pick-ups, a trailer, unfolding platform tents, a camp stove, table and chairs, kayaks, bikes, an ice cream maker, an ice maker, Piero, Patty, their three boys, Futa (their protective, pregnant black lab); Santi, Sandra, Derek and me. We were a sight.
We drove through some amazingly beautiful Chilean country with almost uncountable bridges over rivers and waterways, and massive blue lakes surrounded by mountains. Every time we stopped, we found wild blackberries on the side of the road, and we unabashedly picked (above our elbows, of course) and ate the ripe fruit.
Unpaved, winding roads took us from the Fu to our first short ferry ride. We all left the truck and watched Game of Thrones while we crossed one lake. Then, we drove a short distance to the next ferry port – for which I did not have a ticket – and when we got there, one of the ferry officials took my passport. I was a little nervous about someone else having my passport. We drove onto the ferry, and I ran out to find the guy that held my passport. He said (in Spanish) he’d given it to someone else and very graciously led me (because I was not understanding him) to the place where I would buy my ticket after the ferry ride started. I sat there and waited for the ticket seller to come. He did, and all was well. I bought my ticket and received my passport in return. This ferry ride took more time so I wandered around the boat, took a nap, took a few pictures, and then wandered more. I found myself looking into the bridge of the ferry with the captain, who happened to be the same man who took my passport, and he motioned for me to enter. I opened the door and started talking very broken spanish with the captain and his first mate as they navigated the ferry across the lake. I took a couple pictures of them, and then they motioned for me to sit in the captain’s chair for my own photo “driving” the boat. Then, it was time to go, and I returned to my Peruvian crew.
Our first night camping was in a random field with a significant number of bee hives. We circled up the trucks and set up camp, had dinner, and went to bed. The next day we left for Puerta Varas to take Derek to catch his flight. We met up with a friend of Santi’s and had lunch before telling Derek goodbye. Then, we went to a brand new mall to buy groceries and look at a clothing shop. That’s when the unfortunate event happened. I went with Patty and Sandra to the store they wanted to see, trying to find wifi so I could buy a plane ticket from Santiago (the town) to Buenos Aires to fly home. Eventually, I popped into a bar and drank a stout to get wifi and buy my ticket. When I went back to the trucks, everyone turned to me and said, “They stole your bags.” What? OK. This is not good. I did have my passport and money on me, but I had nothing else. No clothes except what I was wearing – nothing else. Sandra also had both of her bags stolen, and Santi had one bag stolen. Soon the police came, and we filled out a report – trying to remember everything in our bags and put a value next to it. In reality, we knew retrieving any of our stuff was almost impossible. Our real task was being ok with letting all our stuff go. When my skis were stolen over a year ago, I felt so violated; this time, I wasn’t happy, but I had peace. Our next goal was to find some clothing to wear. We drove to another town with a mall and had 15 minutes to find underwear, pants, shirts, and whatever else we needed. We camped that night and everyone adjusted their sleeping situations to accommodate for Sandra and me not having any camping gear. We made it through the rest of our trip with minimal stuff, drove to Santiago, said goodbye to Pierro, Patty, and the boys, ate some good food, and then I parted ways with Santi and Sandra after hanging out for a night in Santiago. I stayed one extra night in the city on my own before flying home to Denver, just in time for the first snow they’d had in weeks. I had two weeks to borrow, buy, and beg my way to having the gear I would need for my next trip to Nepal. And it happened. I got everything I needed. What an incredible reminder of how blessed I am by friends who loaned, offered to loan, and offered to buy me that gear. Thanks to all for filling my backpack and my heart.
I lived in the Casita de Masaje. The one-room structure hid in the wild brush and trees that grew tall along the little stream running through camp. To the right of my little hut sat the vegetable barn. Every morning between 7:00 and 7:15, I heard the wooden door to the vegetable barn scrape the concrete floor as someone opened it gathering fruit for breakfast. At 7:30 my alarm sounded. I got up and trekked a hundred yards to the bathrooms across the field to wash my face. Then I trekked back to my casita, put on my yoga clothes, and gathered what I needed to lead the flow for the morning. I carried my backpack with yoga notebook, phone, and insulated mug to the kitchen to fill my cup with coffee or tea and to prepare coffee or tea for the sleeping clients to whom I would give a wake-up call as their tent captain.
At the beginning of the trip, most people were already awake when I arrived to wake them, but toward the trip’s end, I was most often greeted by silence when I brought them their drink of choice. I would whisper good morning, set down their drinks, and quietly leave to go to the yoga deck. Some of my favorite moments came next.
I sat up my yoga mat and did my own practice overlooking the Futaleufu River. Many times I stood with my hands in Angeli Mudra just breathing and taking in the scene of the morning; thanking God for the opportunity to be right where I was. Then, clients began to arrive, trickling in slowly, setting up their double mats, and taking in the beauty as well. Mornings usually started crisply with the sun still tucked behind the crevice of the mountains. But as we moved through warriors, mountain poses, and downward dogs, rays of light started to shine above the “v” where the two sides of the valley came together. As we ended, and I led the class into savasana, the sun fully shone (if it wasn’t cloudy) and each body lying flat on the ground received the warmth of those rays. I (usually with help) offered lavender eye pillows and adjustments for anyone who wanted to receive them. When savasana ended, we thanked each other for the practice, rolled up the mats, and went to the “breakfast of champions”.
The breakfast spread usually included homemade granola, homemade yogurt, homemade breads, homemade jams, eggs, meat, fruit, and whatever else might randomly appear. It really was a breakfast of champions. Everyone ate heartily as the trip leader discussed the day’s events and choices for activity. After a few questions for clarity, the group broke to prep for the days water adventures. Those adventures might include rafting Class III, IV, or V rapids with a guide and a team; captaining a single-person ducky (inflatable kayak); or horseback riding to a waterfall.
After a full day on the river, everyone returned to camp to either relax in the wood-fired hot tub, have a drink and appetizers at the bar (or both), or take a nap (or all three!) Staff and guests drank, ate, and chatted together watching the sun set behind the mountains, the river reflecting the light. Then the bell rang for dinner, and everyone gathered in the dining area for the first course: hot soup. Following the soup, the concinieras (cooks) set the large table with a grand buffet, and the main meal was served. Indian night, Mexican night, Italian night, Peruvian night, Chilean night, Argentinian night; every night had a different food theme. Everyone ate at the big community table, drinking wine and talking. Conversations became connections for friendship at dinner. I heard discussions on God, religion, jobs, adventures, broken bones, broken hearts, kids, grandkids, and much more. The conversations continued through dessert. Sometimes dessert turned into drinks which sometimes turned into a big dance party. Other times, campfires and guitar pickin’ followed dessert. Of course sometimes sleep followed dessert and nothing more. At the end of the day, everyone went to their tents (large canvas tents with real beds and feather duvets) to rest for what would come the following day.
What a sweet treat to have so many days on the Fu, meeting incredible people and experiencing great adventure. One of the guests wrote the following impactful words and shared them with me:
“Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life. It turns what we have into enough, and more. It turns denial into acceptance, chaos into order, confusion into clarity. It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, and a stranger into a friend.”
My Futaleufu River time has started and is already nearing the end. I am completely enchanted by this place. The turquoise Futaleufu River winds through black shale-like rock walls with lush foliage everywhere. Rafters and kayakers from around the world come to this river to navigate the white water. I came to teach yoga and absorb the South American culture. The first week I stayed in the Bio Bio camp in the orchard up on the hill behind the Tias’ house. Every day I would cross the little bridge over the stream of runoff that waters the Tias’ farm. Every day a mother hen with her little chicks ran from me through the tall grass to safety. The trees dropped sour apples. The sheep called to each other across the yard, and Tia Nellie yelled at Gary (their new puppy) for jumping on somone or for stealing shoes or for some other puppy antics. I could walk 50 feet to be at the yoga deck that overlooked the Futa River and Macheta mountain. The boards of the large yoga deck warp upward toward the sun making yoga on one mat uncomfortable but two mats inviting. I always go early to do my own practice before teaching. There’s no need for music with the river, birds, and animals all contributing to the song that surrounds the Futa. The chill of the morning makes my bare feet cold, but as I work through sun salutations, warriors, and arm balances, my body warms and the sun starts to peak through the mountains facing the back of the platform. Mountains surround this place, and clouds constantly play through the cracks and creases to create mysterious and ever-changing settings. Sometimes the clouds rest on the water like a blanket or a smoke screen until the sun arrives to chase them. If it’s cloudy, they stay all day. Many days it is cloudy and rainy and deep sinking cold settles into the bones. On those days, we sit in the wood-fired hot tub or sauna to remove the chill. Actually, we sit in the wood-fired hot tub any day we can. If it’s too hot, then we rope swing or rock jump into the refreshing waters of the Fu, swim to the stairs, walk through the bar, and go back to the hot tub. Hot cold hot cold hot cold. Smiles. Laughter. I’ve been the bar tender. I’ve been the fire watcher. I’ve been the yoga teacher. I’ve been the dish washer. Whatever needs to be done, you do. It’s a training ground for life and good living – appreciating people and the moments you have. People discuss this concept all the time but rarely do it well. Here, it is the only way. Wi-Fi doesn’t exist in camp. Cell phones are used for cameras, alarms, and flash lights; otherwise, they’re pretty useless. You don’t see everyone on a cell phone here like in the States. People talk to each other. Lively conversation is shared just like the meat, food, and drink, and when people say the party starts at 5pm, it’s acceptable to arrive at 8p or 9p or later. Come whenever…as long as you come. Being here, being present, that’s what is important.
I flew from Paris to Marrakesh constantly on the look-out for a cute brunette with a yoga mat named Ashley. I didn’t find her until we landed, and I overheard another girl ask if she was going to a yoga retreat. I promptly asked them both about the yoga retreat and came to meet Ashley (a flight attendant from Seattle) and Faiza (a lawyer from New York City). We found our driver holding a sign reading Alma Retreats (the retreat company owned and operated by my friend Stacey), got in the SUV, and watched in horror, excitement, and awe as we darted through the tiny streets of Marrakesh barely missing people, bikes, wagons, donkeys, and small children. The car stopped, and we were instructed to get out and grab our bags. The driver then led us through a maze of narrow streets filled again with people, carts, motor bikes, bikes, and donkeys. Thirty-foot, adobe-like walls surrounded us on either side making it difficult to tell what direction we were going. We turned right and walked toward a children’s school. We turned right again and saw a dead end with a door, no sign. We rang the bell, the door opened, and we stepped through the opening into the beautiful oasis of Zam Zam Riad, our home for a couple of nights. A beautiful plunge pool greeted us and then opened to a small courtyard flooded by sunlight filtered by a palm tree taller than the building itself. The outside walls, all white, had large cutouts revealing the hallways and doors that led to all the rooms and extended three stories above us on all four sides. I marveled at the details of this place: the brass cut-out light fixtures that cast beautiful shapes on the walls and ceilings, the tassels at every corner and turn in every color, the delicate embroidery detail on the pillows and window treatments. It was unlike anything I had seen before, and I knew Morocco was going to be a memorable experience.
Faiza, Ashley, and I roomed together along with Sam who joined us later. After we were settled, we all found our way to the rooftop to do our first yoga practice with Kevin Lamb. And what a practice! It was one of the most intense two-hour practices I had done and included a one-legged side plank that turned into the front splits. I’m still working on that one. After the practice we freshened up for dinner and all sat at a long table draped in a white cloth under the palm tree and night sky. We were about to experience our first round of Moroccan tajine, a style of slow cooking in a clay dish with a conical lid. We had aubergine (eggplant) salad and bread, tajine with chicken and vegetables and rice. I know we had dessert at the end but I cannot remember. I was so full of delicious food. I went to bed satisfied and wondering what the next day would hold.
I awoke the next morning at the 5am call to prayer. The calls are five times a day over loud speakers all across the city. I tried to go back to sleep but just laid in bed until we started our vigorous yoga practice. Breakfast couldn’t come quickly enough for me. I was so hungry that I devoured the fruit, pancakes, omelets, and bread with various jellies, butter, and honey. Moroccan mint tea is served at almost every meal and throughout the day, and I enjoyed the calming effect it had on my stomach after eating so much. My next mission was to prepare for a tour of the town and a bit of shopping in the souks (markets). Brahim, our guide, met us and led us through the crazy maze of the walled streets through the courtyard of a mosque, past a fountain, and to an apothecary. We smelled and tried all sorts of different concoctions, but the one I purchased was black cumin. We wrapped a small amount in a thin cloth, crushed it by rolling it in our hands, and then smelled it. The effect was close to eating a large ball a wasabi – incredibly opening in the sinuses. After spending a significant amount of time and money in Herboriste Du Paradis, we left to get lost deep in the markets of Morocco amidst the colors, confusion, crafts, and chaos. “Where you from? Oh, good place. Look in my store. You like? I give you Morocco price.” I think every salesperson said this to us as we walked through the tight corridors made of small stalls filled with leather shoes, wooden boxes, brass lamps, hamam towels, and leather bags. Turns into turns into dead ends and back and suddenly we were in an open courtyard with snake charmers, monkey owners, food stands, goods stands, and restaurants. We met up with another part of our group that had gone shopping at a warehouse and then walked back to Zam Zam for yoga and dinner.
The next morning started early and with no yoga. We drove to the Sahara desert and made a few stops along the way. We saw women grinding almonds to make argan oil. We looked at carpets in a massive (and extremely expensive) carpet store. We stayed for one night close to the Casbah where part of Game of Thrones was filmed. We drove through a forest of palm trees. We tried not to get sick on the incredibly windy mountain roads. And at the end, we raced. Four, four-wheel-drive vehicles bouncing through the dunes of the Sahara to our camp.
We arrived to find large white tents in two rows with covered candles lighting the way to the resting and dining tents. Each tent was divided into two sections on the inside: two beds in one area and a bucket of water, shelf with mirror, and bucket with a toilet seat in the other. We learned that we would be “flushing” the toilet by putting a scoop of sand in the bucket when we finished. That night, I stepped on the rug in front of our toilet and found it sopping wet and the bucket surprisingly empty. We got a new bucket the next day. You can’t expect perfection when glamping in the desert.
Once the sun came up, the flies came out. They didn’t bite, but they did swarm. Each person had their own fleet of 50 flies at all times. We did yoga shrouded in our turbine scarves, trying to keep the flies from crawling on us. Once the coolness of the morning evaporated, the heat set in. Because the tents had no ventilation, taking an afternoon nap inside felt like trying to sleep in a sauna. We sought refuge under the shade of the open-air dining tent and played Farkle (an amazingly fun dice game that Danielle, our NYC bar owner friend, taught us) while drinking water, sometimes with ice. Then the sun set, and the flies went to sleep, and the Sahara nights charmed us into forgetting the days by offering uninhibited views of the galaxies and sweet, cool breezes. We ate lavishly and drank wine with dinner. Then everyone sat around or danced by the fire as the locals played drums and sang. I drummed with them a couple times and thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The Sahara left many memories: the camel ride that was supposed to be at noon ended up happening at sunset because of a sick camel (thanks camel!), the walk around the dunes with the locals telling us about their lives, my solo walk along the ridges to take it all in. It was truly like no other place I have ever been.
On the day we were to return, half the group caught the “epidemic,” which was terrible for an eight-hour car ride through the very windy mountains back to Marrakesh. I thought I had escaped, but it was not to be. I ate lunch, and then the car ride turned into a nightmare of unending turns, swerves, jolts, bumps, inevitably stops. We all eventually made it back to Zam Zam and with great relief, I went to bed. It wasn’t a great way to end the trip. Some people left early the next morning. I laid low, still feeling terrible, but took advantage of getting a hammam bath (someone else scrubs and bathes you, which was exactly what I needed in my state of illness).
A few of us stayed an extra day in Marrakesh, and after the sickness finally subsided, we all went shopping in the souks again before preparing to see the beach side of Morocco in Essaouira . We stayed at an amazing little place jointly owned by a couple, she was from France and he was from Morocco. She said they met 15 years previously on the beach only a short distance away. For a few days we enjoyed each others’ company, the markets in the town, and a great little French restaurant that was only a few blocks from our rooms. We did not, however, enjoy the beach. Unfortunately, torrential rains flooded the area and the water closest to the shore was brown. Oh well. It was chilly anyway. Then, we all started going our own way. Alicia, Ashley, and I met Faiza in Paris for a day, and then Alicia and I met up in London before my flight home. Then, the magical trip ended, and I was again in Colorado.
I took the train to Amsterdam from Paris. My bags were much smaller as I packed only for the weekend and left the rest of my stuff at Eli’s house. I decided to return to Paris after my weekend trip and stay with her and her family again because they were such great hosts. So, I landed at Hotel One to wait for Frieda to arrive from Germany. It was a great hotel if you’re looking for a place to stay in Europe. I watched the sunset from our corner room and then heard a knock at the door. It was so good to see my friend from yoga teacher training in Nicaragua last January! Because it was late, we decided immediately that we needed to get food. I had made reservations at a Dutch restaurant for 9pm. We started the walk and en route found a cute little Thai place to eat instead. Everything about this place was so unique and the details were absolutely amazing, down to the flower tea cups on leaf tea plates that matched all of our dishes and the friendliest, kindest waiter that spoke only a little English. It was called Chutima’s – it receives mediocre reviews for service, but we were in no hurry – we found it delightful. So we sat and chatted over dinner for a couple of hours and afterward walked back to the hotel and slept. We were both exhausted. On Saturday morning we took our time getting around, chatted about life, and found a great little cafe, De Bakkerswinkel, that served bruch. So, we started with a light breakfast of scones, clotted cream, and jam, and then moved right into lunch with soup and a sandwich. We also bought treats for our separate trips home that evening. Then we meandered the beautiful city. The city is clean and manicured and beautiful with the circling canals and bakeries and bicycles on every corner. We were a little disappointed that we indulged so much for brunch and didn’t leave room for all the amazing food we found as we walked. We went to a local grocery store because I talked so much about curry ketchup, and Frieda helped me find a tube of the yummy red sauce and a few other fun treats to take with me. Then we walked to a park and found a cute little restaurant in the middle where we drank mint tea on the second floor overlooking everything green and talked about our lives and maybe meeting up in Spain next year for a yoga retreat. As the sun lowered, we found our way back to the hotel, and had one last gin moscow mule together. Then our short reunion ended and our trains went separate ways.
My train went to Brussels where I met up with a friend of a friend who was from the US but had been working from Brussels for a year. Our first stop took us to an American sports bar to try to find the OSU Cowboys game, but it wasn’t meant to be. I ate a gyro, and we walked through Brussels at night to wind up in Delirium Village and the Grand Square. It was strange to see kids sitting in circles on the hard stones of the square drinking beer and hanging out. We tried a few different beers at Delirium, a beer I have had many times, and took in chaos around us.
The next day, we went to a park on the south end of Brussels and ferried across the lake to a restaurant called Chalet Robinson for lunch. I had steak and frites (Belgium is famous for frites – not the French:). The park was exceptionally green, and I didn’t know how lucky I was to catch a beautifully sunny day in Brussels. The next day I went for a run in the same park. The day was overcast and threatened rain, but it was still beautiful and green. Later in the day, I meandered around the town, stopped to write at pub, and then found a great Pho place for dinner. And thankfully, I had an umbrella for the rain that threatened and the came. On my last day there, I took a six-hour group belgian beer tour that lasted six hours and lead to bars off the traditional tourist path. We encountered quaint places with amazing beer, food pairings, culture, and education. For instance, only 11 beers in the world carry the Authentic Trappist Product label. The qualifications for this type of beer are as follows:
The beer must be brewed within the walls of a Trappist monastery, either by the monks themselves or under their supervision.
The brewery must be of secondary importance within the monastery and it should witness to the business practices proper to a monastic way of life
The brewery is not intended to be a profit-making venture. The income covers the living expenses of the monks and the maintenance of the buildings and grounds. Whatever remains is donated to charity for social work and to help persons in need. (From the International Trappist Association website)
As the tour continued, I remembered less of the education but had one stop in particular that stood out. The tour lead us to a traditional puppet theater, Theatre Royal de Toone, where political messages used to be secretly passed to the public through the shows. The puppets were elaborate three to four foot tall marianette puppets, and though we didn’t see a show, it was impressive to imagine what it would have been like. At the end of the tour, my guide ran with me to the train station to help me find my way so I wouldn’t miss my train back to Paris. Though I missed eating mussels in Brussels, the town offered more than I expected. It was a great surprise.
I felt a little “at home” as I got back to Paris and returned to my temporary place at Eli’s. Bab (the family dog) greeted me again with her barks (maybe short-term memory?). Though I spent another week in Paris and did some touristy activities, I took more time to walk around, sit in cafes, write, and experience what a typical Parisian might experience. I ate traditional French breakfast. I met up and chatted with a couple of Parisians that I met through a friend of a friend. I just enjoyed the city. I did go to a French wine tasting and ate my weight in cheese (properly paired with great wine). I also took a cooking class that began with a trip to the French markets. We picked out duck and scallops from the meat and fish markets and then chose our vegetables and baguettes (the proper French baguette market is highly regulated). We cooked our food, which included vanilla bean mashed potatoes and lava cakes with dark and white chocolate pouring from the hot middle. It was a great meal with great people, wine, cheese, and dessert. I may have waddled home that night perfectly content to be in Paris. And then my time in Paris ended. I packed my souvenirs in the new bag I bought (too many souvenirs and gifts!), got my backpack and yoga mat ready, said goodbye to Eli and her sweet family, and flew to Morocco.
I took a train through the Chunnel from London to Paris. I thought it would be cool to travel through the Chunnel since I had studied a bit about it in school as an engineer. To be honest, I didn’t even know we had traveled through it until we were already on the other side. Maybe that’s the best way. I arrived to Paris a few hours late because someone had stolen the wires from a part of the train route originally planned, and we had to take a long detour. I arrived to my AirBnB after dark and met Eli, Miguel, Anna, and their little dog, Bab. Eli, saying it was too dark and I didn’t know the city, invited me to have dinner with their family, and I greatly enjoyed eating home-cooked food and learning about their family. What an incredible treat to have met this sweet family. I arrived to Paris with no plans except a bike tour of the city the next day. Since biking is one of my favorite things, I try to do bike tours in new cities to learn the area, see a few sites, and get an idea of what I want to do while I’m there. Luckily, I met Steph, a fellow solo traveller from New Zealand, on the tour, and we planned together to do and see all the touristy things of Paris. Not having great cell service, we decided to meet that evening under the middle of the Eiffel Tower at 6pm (I know, I know, but seriously, it’s pretty easy to find). Before meeting Steph, I wandered over to Musee d’Orsey to take in a few 19th/20th French/European paintings for a couple of hours and then made my way to the tower. We found a place to have dinner and share a bottle of wine and then decided to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower for a night view of the city, the twinkling tower, and the two-day-old blood moon. I think we waited in line less than 30 minutes and got to enjoy the view in what seemed record time compared to what others had told me about their adventures to the top. Afterward, we met for a drink with a friend of Steph’s from her designer frame convention (that’s why she was in town – she owns her own designer frame shop in New Zealand) at a quirky little restaurant that had three stories and a view to the bottom floor through the middle. We parted ways and decided to visit the Sacre Coeur the next day.
The following morning, we sat in a small cafe with a view of the beautiful church and had omelets, bread, coffee, and juice before our visit. Our bike tour guide had warned us of some of the tricks different people play to get money out of tourists: men from Africa wrapping strings around your wrists when you’re not looking and telling you that you have to pay for the bracelet and then asking, “Why you not happy?” or the groups of gypsy girls with pizza boxes getting your attention by saying they need your signature for a social cause while another girl snatches your phone or wallet from the other side. It’s all part of the traveling experience. Before we walked into the church, we overheard a man heatedly explaining “why he wasn’t happy.” The church was beautifully ornate inside – like so many old churches in Europe – and we decided to pay a few Euro to climb the 90 steps to the top of the tower to have a day-view of Paris. It was worth it. What we had missed the night before from the Eiffel Tower, we got from Sacre Coeur. We climbed back down after getting our fill (commenting on getting back in shape as we went) and ventured on to get some amazing street crepes (mine was chocolate and banana). Then went shoe shopping so I’d have something to wear with the dress Steph loaned me for the Moulin Rouge show that night. After having shoe succes, getting eye make-up done at Mac, and eating a snack at McDonald’s (what can I say, we got desperate), we took an Uber to our crazy dinner show where the tables were so close together, we could hardly get to our seat. We ate, attempted to chat with the two men from Uruguay next to us, and then watched as the craziness began. I hadn’t checked to see what kind of show it was. Steph had booked a single ticket through a travel agent, and we thought it would be fun to go together. Neither of us had any idea what to expect. Balancing acts, comedy acts, musical acts, a woman swimming with pythons, sequence, gems, feathers, lights, and yes, tastefully topless dancers (we were in France afterall), paraded across the stage for two hours performing. I watched amazed as a man with his feet strapped to the seat of a chair and knees bent over the top of the chair rested with his head against the floor while balancing his standing partner in his hands, arms straight above him. Then, he did the most amazing sit-up, still balancing her, and stood up in the seat of the chair himself. I had no words. There are things in life that I will only be able to appreciate and never be able to do. Buzzing from the show, we went for drinks to finish the night and made plans to visit the Louvre the following day, Steph’s last in Paris.
We met at the Lion entrance on the garden side of the Louvre to avoid the big lines at the pyramid entrance (our bike tour guide told us this little secret). Within 15 minutes we were in the museum and taking selfies (it’s pretty much required) with the famous Mona Lisa. We meandered a bit more through the many hallways, and then Steph decided she would rather spend time by the river for her last few hours. We left and caught an amazing free fashion/art exhibit (Dans L’Oeil du Flâneur: Hermès) and had crepes by the river. Then I sadly bid my new friend good bye so she could catch her flight home, and I went back to the Louvre to see more of the place and do some writing. The Louvre itself easily overwhelms the unsuspecting tourist. The maze of hallways and stairwells can lead to endless circles for the directionally impaired (that would be me) and the art without explanation becomes a cacophony of visual noise. I had to choose a few pieces to sit and admire to really appreciate the experience. I closed the evening by wandering the city and eating vietnamese pho in the opera district. The restaurant owner generously refilled the hot water in my tea pot several times after I had finished my meal but continued occupying the spot to do a couple hours of writing in this city of artists. I also thought about the next day and how I would be traveling to Amsterdam to meet with my dear friend and fellow yoga teacher from Germany. But to Paris, I would soon return.
London was a short, whirlwind of a tour. Jody and I were both exhausted after being in Africa for a little over two weeks, so we took it easy – especially since we both contracted variations of the “epidemic” that passed through the group at the end of our Africa trip (Cipro comes to the rescue!). We decided to do a red bus tour to figure out how London worked and ended up being disappointed by the lack of information provided. So, we set out on our own to ride the London Eye, glimpse Big Ben, attempt to see the changing of the guard, and a few other normal, toursity adventures. Since neither of us had been to London before, it was great to see a bit of the city. A rugby match during the play-offs would have been great, but we ran out of time.
We did, however, have time to finish our Africa trip in style by going to the musical production of the Lion King. I saw the Lion King once before in New York city with one of my best friends, Melanie, and though I still enjoyed the show, our seats were not that great. So, in London, we splurged and purchased floor seats (stalls, as they call them in London) to a matinee showing. We had our tickets and a few hours before the show, so we went to get lunch to avoid “hangriness”. I should explain that Jody is not very food adventurous. He can only take so much, and since he’d been adventurously eating in Africa, he was ready for something “normal”. He told me he had been craving Chipotle for the entire trip, and so, we went to Chipotle. Yes, London has Chipotle. I ate chips and a little rice and watched as Jody happily consumed his burrito. I watched because there was no way I was eating Chipotle – not because I don’t like it, but because we were in LONDON! So, after Chipotle, we stopped at a local pub where Jody watched me eat a lamb shank pie. We left the pub and headed to the show. The costumes, the singers, the musicians, the music: I really like this show! Maybe it’s because I grew up watching the Disney movie repeatedly with my little brother and knew all the words to all the songs from the original movie. Or, maybe it’s because the costumes have both beauty and mechanical genius and the music is really powerful and the show has humor. Really, it’s the whole package. Our seats were next to the isle in row L from the stage and when the characters walked down the isles, we could have touched them. If pictures had been allowed, I would have taken many. I would recommend this show to people who are not fond of Broadway productions. Here’s a link to what a snipit of what we saw.
After the show, we walked back to a square that we had found on our way to get lunch. Covent Square had a few restaurants with balconies, and we decided to have a pint and watch the street performers. After watching Master Yogi Laser walk on his hands with his legs over his arms and do crazy balancing acts on stilts in the air (in all my yoga-ness, I can do neither of these things), we decided to explore the large indoor/outdoor market area connected to the pub. Decorations and sheep adorned everything. It was a special occasion for Shaun the Sheep (and raising money for the children’s hospital) and though we didn’t know the full meaning, we decided to take a few photo ops. We also stopped to have crepes in a little shop in the market, meandered some more, and then went to a traditional pub for dinner. I guess Jody was feeling more adventurous after being “recentered” by the burritos of Chipotle. We ate our last meal at the White Swan, where I enjoyed another meat pie, and then went back to the hotel. I met Jody for breakfast in the morning, and then said goodbye to my friend as he left to catch his flight home to the States. I stayed in very expensive London an extra day to catch up, plan and rest, but decided to catch a train to Paris the next day. At least Paris would be a little cheaper than London…(a little).