Angel Falls Venezuela – World’s Tallest Waterfall

Angel Falls - World's Tallest Waterfall

One of the biggest adventures in my life included a recent trip to Angel Falls.  Angel Falls is very deep in Venezuela.  First there was getting to Venezuela.  The cheapest way we found was to go through Curacao.  With a friend we arranged an overnight van transport from Caracas to Ciudad Bolivar airport, and from there we flew on a small plane to Canaima, the absolute edge of any sort of civilization.  The area we flew into is a crossways of a number of Amerindian tribes where the river is the road.  From that point we met up with our native guides.  At the local market, call it arrivals and departures where I saw a native wearing a loin cloth.  We were really out there.  After jumping on an army transport vehicle we went up stream past a big waterfall to get in our hollowed out canoe.

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I had heard we were up for a four hour canoe ride, what I didn’t know was that it was going to be four hours of white water on a hollowed out canoe with a motor!  This wasn’t a motor boat.  This was a native boat turned into a motor boat.  We stuffed all of our stuff for 2 days plus our group of 10 and our two native guides.  The first wave, I thought we were going over.  I think the canoe was even more rocky than you’re average canoe.  We were literally in a log that as hollowed out.  It didn’t feel very steady.  Our guides knew it.  If we put our hands on the side of the canoe it was enough to throw off the equilibrium.  Ask anyone who rode in our canoe, during the first couple of hours they had to yell at us every few minutes to make sure we kept a low center of gravity.  Getting bashed by cold waves over and over did much to make us listen to every warning from our guides.

Land of the Lost

Land of the lost… A view of Angel Falls from the other side of the river where we were camping… we woke up to this.

There wasn’t anything on our cold soaked bodies that was dry.  I had prune hands and feet by the time we reached our destination 4 hours up the river.  I later learned the conditions were right for us to make such good time.  The river was high due to lots of rain.  What I missed out on mentioning was the fact that as we sped up the river getting drenched with whitewater, we saw some of the most incredible views of waterfalls coming down from high plateaus rising up from the plains.  The terrain changed from sparse forest to thick dense jungle.

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Our guides informed us that the peninsula we saw was over 700 Sq Km at the top and rises over 3000 meters from the ground to the top.  The terrain itself is a thing of stories.  From the stories of a land where dinosaurs still live to a place where an old man flies his house on balloons.  It was also part of the stories of El Dorado in search of the cities of gold.  This place is so inaccessible, it is the place of stories.

Angel Falls Venezuela

Angel Falls Venezuela Mirador Salto Angel

The reveal of the world’s tallest waterfall was scintillating.  When I realized what it was and had it confirmed by our guides, our boat was a flutter with video, cameras and phones clicking snapping as we all hoped the waves would stay at bay while we got shots of a lifetime.  Within minutes the boat stopped, and we started a hike across streams and small rivers up the mountain toward a vantage point to see the best of Angel Falls.  A five mile hike with wet feet and wet clothes.  My friend Michael did the hike barefoot as his flip flops broke early on.  I was wearing knock off crocks that I bought for about the equivalent of $5 back in the camp.  It worked out for me.  The hike was pretty wild.  I was looking for jaguars and monkeys, but ultimately I missed seeing any significant wild life.  On the way down, the trail got darker and darker.  Most of the group had head lamps.  Despite the new batteries I put in it, they were dead when I found it at the bottom of my bag and the light was switched to on.  I wouldn’t find out until our guide brought down the last group that he saw a 3 meter (10 feet) long boa constrictor!

That night we slept on a dozen hammocks slung up next to each other displayed in what looked like a wedding chapel.  Swinging just a little, you’d bump into you’re neighbor and we were a cozy bunch… That is until the next morning when I found out that I slept like a log when I laid down.  Apparently I was snoring (I hadn’t really slept in two days) and made it a bit of a challenge for a few of my new friends… which made it a bit uncomfortable over the next couple of days.  I guess the snoring was a bit of a joke in camp.  It kind of felt like a summer camp after 3 days with these folks.

I’d like to share more of our experience on this trip, but I don’t want to detract from the falls… What an amazing falls.  After we got back down closer to canaima we had the opportunity to do some smaller hikes including one behind a HUGE waterfall. That as well was truly incredible.  Another night on hammocks with the option of a room or bed… I think I got bit by something even though I was sleeping in a mosquito net.  Strange.

The final day we had the option of taking a little flight up around the falls.  Doing the fuzzy math with the cheaper exchange rate, it came to around $50 to go fly in a 6 seat plane around Angel Falls.  I convinced my friends we should do it.  Another amazing add-on and this was the best $50 spent in a really long time.  It was incredible.

After we got up we had some amazing views of the falls.  With four passes, twice each window and a rainbow, and a different view each time… we got some amazing shots!

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Flying over Auyantepui and the great Cataract – Angel Falls, named for a pilot from Missouri who crash landed his plane on top of Auyantepui

Overall I really loved the little plane flight.  It gave me a real appreciation for how high up we were and provided the chance to really gain another vantage point otherwise impossible.  It made me think about the history and discovery of this area of the world from the European perspective.  There is some fascinating stories about the history and discovery with Jimmy Angel and his search for Gold and Diamonds… Can you believe that they didn’t believe him when he told the stories of a fall that fell 1KM

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More stories to tell… but I really want to get these amazing pictures shared… We walked behind this falls!

More later…

5 Incredible Alaska Adventures


Alaska is amazing.  Everything you’re heard and then some.  My visit to Alaska was my last state in the US (50/50).  For that reason alone I was excited to visit.  I was debating doing a cruise from Seattle or from Vancouver, Canada but ultimately decided on a flight to Anchorage.  It took me by surprise when I was trying to figure out what I should do with my Alaska Miles. I had 45,000 miles and after my move to Salt Lake City, I found my miles were going to expire.  What I discovered in my searches, I could fly from SLC to anywhere in Alaska even as far as Borrow, AK for 25,000 round trip.  That’s not the same case with Hawaii.  It was 40,000 round trip, but flying from Salt Lake City to Boise Idaho was the same number of miles.  At first I was thinking I should go with a friend to Alaska, but my wife expressed interest, and getting a multi day baby sitter to watch my 3 boys has never been easy, and they are all great travelers.  Then I was talking to my parents, and they expressed interest.  At first I thought I could go with my dad, but then my mom wanted to go as well.  Why not make this a super family trip?  With the partnership with Alaska I found a direct Delta flight from SLC to ANC (Anchorage.) I had to check to see how much the Delta points were for this same flight.  25,000 miles!  With this discovery I decided to book 5 award tickets on Delta in addition to the 2 on Alaska.  I even ended up buying 5,000 miles to make up the difference.

Lessons Learned:

  • Alaska/Delta miles let you book a flight to Alaska for the same price as a domestic (48 states) ticket – (Best Deal was 25,000 Award Miles)
  • Same number of miles for adjoining cities as it is for Miami to Alaska

One other thing that came in looking at the best way to book Alaska was in discovering that an Alaska Cruise would ultimately mean getting on a smaller boat to see the glaciers and getting closer to the wild life ultimately.  I did find that both food and hotels are pricey in Alaska.  So that was definitely points toward cruise, but I used some tricks to find a hotel in Anchorage for less than $100 using Priceline.com.  Food was a different challenge.  Most meals were about $5 more than in the states.  The 2 for 20 deal at Chilis was 2 for $25.  A large bowl of Pho soup was $12 in contrast to 6 or $7 in UT or WA.  The IHOP average meal was around $12 vs. 7 as well.  At fast food places, the $1 menu was $2.  Anchorage did have a lot of choices for food, and out in the smaller cities the deli’s and sandwich shoppes could get you a meal.

Rustic Cabin with fire

Some of my best advice for the adventure traveler is to think outside the box.  There are hostels that have much better rates, but also consider camping and cabins, some of the best deals and most flexible options are in this area.

5 MUST DO ACTIVITIES IN ALASKA

1. Glaciers and Fjords – The Glaciers and Fjords in Alaska are simply amazing.  The size and scale of these things dwarf most things on earth.  They sure seem like they are alive.  Calving, Moving, Groaning, Shrinking, Growing, Cracking, Carving…  There are multiple ways of reaching these amazing beauties.

Fjords with Calving Glacier

The best way is to get right up to the Fjords of Kenai by cruise.  Right out of Seward there are multiple cruise companies with multiple cruise options.  I took the 10am Kenai Fjords Cruise with Salmon Bake Dinner on the island.  I have no regrets.  It was a great cruise, we saw a couple of Fjords up close, but also amazing wild life.  I’ll talk about that later.

Kenai Fjords Cruise

As well, you can hike up to the Glaciers.  Exit Glacier has a great hike that starts with a flat handicap accessible viewpoint within a mile, or add another mile and hike up the mountain to view them up closer, and add another mile to touch the glacier, or add another few miles and you can hike up the largest snow field in the US.

exit glacier sea ice kayaking

or even Sea Kayak to the Fjords, not too close because these things are very active and can create amazing tides.  I’m sure you could even dog sled in the winter.  There are options to take a sled with wheels to help the dogs practice for the Iditarod.

2. Whale Watching – Some of the best viewing of whales in the world is right here in Alaska.  On this short 8 hour Fjords and Nature cruise of the Kenai peninsula, Kenai National Park from the water, we saw a half dozen hump backs, a couple of pods of Orcas with many individuals covering a large distance, half dozen porpoises, hundreds of seals and sea lion and dozens of sea otters. Such a great feeling when you see these gigantic creatures of the sea.  It’s not the same as watching National Geographic, because you’re seeing it and experiencing it first hand.  I can imagine whale watching in a kayak or small boat would also be quite “wild.”

orca pod wild

Orcas, Hump Backs, and Belugas are all within reach, I saw a couple of pods of Belugas driving along the Arm headed to Seward.  I’m sure the population increases and changes based on the seasons, but the Orcas and Hump Backs and the Belugas all call it home.  I’m sure they have additional whale friends who come and visit.  I’m also sure it’s a different experience every time, but reading the reviews from the Kenai Fjords Cruise, I think you’ll be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t think it was incredible.

hump back whale tail

As a photographer, catching the tale of the whale, or the even more rare breach of a hump back whale is beyond exhilarating.  These are wildlife memories that will ruin any future visits to sea world, or at least remind me when I saw it IN THE WILD.

seal rock

While seeing large groups of seals and sea lions and the like, I am reminded of a number of encounters the docks in San Francisco or Seal Beach California, the docks in Ensenada or the elephant seals on the beach in Antarctica, but seeing them in their native habitat on rocks away from people is pretty darn cool.  I can’t tire of seeing these amazing animals.

3. Encounter the Animals of the Forrest – With more than 3 types of Bears, and some of the densest and largest populations of large land mammals, Alaska is the best place to find bears, moose, elk, caribou and more in their natural habitat.  You can go flight seeing and bear viewing they’ll take you right to where they are dinning on salmon.  We saw a little brown bear chewing on a carcass on the side of the road.

little black bear eating

While I can’t guarantee you will see a moose or bear while simply driving.  There are plenty of signs to watch for moose.  That’s a big concern.  They are big animals and cause serious damage to your vehicle if you hit one.

big rack carribou

If you are looking for guaranteed great sightings, I won’t send you to the Anchorage zoo which does have them, I would suggest going to the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center which has decent rates (carpool for even better rates).  You can definitely get up and close.  With a simple fence separating you.  While you don’t feed them, you can visit the Musk Ox or Reindeer center in Palmer (close to Anchorage) for even closer encounters.  The good news is the money goes to rehabilitating animals and reintroducing and strengthening the population of endangered animals.

big black bear in meadow

We saw…

  • Baby Musk Ox
  • Huge Herd of Wood Bison
  • Elk Herd
  • Black Bears
  • Moose
  • Caribou/Reindeer
  • Porcupine

baby musk ox cute

4. It’s a Birders Paradise – Eagles, Swans, Cormerans, Puffins, and way more.  If you love birds, you’re in paradise.  Even if you aren’t you’re going to see some amazing examples of some of the most beautiful birds.  Below this is one example.  We’re watching this elk herd and noticed a bald eagle in the tree nearby.  Incredible.

Eagle watching over the elk herd

This pair of swans was swimming with their three ugly duckling swan babies in a pond just outside of Seward.

Swan Family

Seems like every where you turn, there’s some amazing majestic bird watching.

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On our cruise we saw the funniest little puffins.  The rare crested puffins, and the more common puffin were so funny to watch trying to take flight.  Seeing them on their terms in these huge rock fortresses which seem designed for birds.

puffin bird rocks

5. It’s a Fisherman’s Paradise – Every where we went people asked if we were doing a charter.  No, we were there to observe, and observe we did.  We started stopping at the streams to see the salmon.  Amazing salmon jumping up their fish ladders and making their way to spawn.  Huge fish, many with their humps out of the water, finding their way upstream.  The rivers were teaming with life.

teaming with life spawning

Red Salmon

In addition as a sportsman’s paradise it wasn’t hard to find huge halibut and a variety of fish on the walls, and in boxes being shipped home.  Lots of great finishing and amazing catches.

After such an amazing trip, I can’t answer why it took Alaska so long to get on my list.  Amazing place… Highly Recommended.  Yes, it does rain and it get’s cold in the winter and dark 22 hours of darkness, but in the summer you get 16 hours of light, and 2 months without much rain in June and July.  Rain starts back up in August.  While I didn’t see the Aurora Borealis, I can see reasons why the time of year has it’s benefits.  It’s a different place with different experiences.  Do you’re research and consider Alaska a great destination to make the most of your miles.

 calving glacier with baby seals

Taj Mahal of Agra India – New 7 Wonders of the World

Taj Mahal Mausoleum in India

My trek through India was truly EPIC.  One of the most interesting and amazing trips.  The assault on the senses was so intense fascinating world of spice.  Some of the oldest cities on the earth are in India.  India is the second most populated country in the world, but driving across the country you wouldn’t know it. The Indus of 3000 BC had a written language, a complex society.  In a country with 1.2 Billion people with one of the richest cultural destinations in the world, I highly recommend India for the adventure seeker, the world traveler, and for those looking to find themselves.  The eat pray love movie suggested that Bali and India are great destinations for getting at your soul.  Trying to find your inner being.  I agree.  India is fantastic, and the wonder the Taj Mahal is the most impressive display of love in the world.  You haven’t seen India, until you’ve seen it the way I have.

Incredible India

This post is in an Adventure Travel Series on the “New 7 Wonders of the World”

Bikaner Holy Rats

I wrote about my experiences with the holy rats of Bikiner.  That one incident was culture shock like no other.  I definitely dove head first and loved it.  I throw out everything I have ever known about rats, and listen to the kids and humble followers that told me to remove my shoes and walk among the rats barefoot.  They say no one has ever even gotten sick from these special rats.  Hundreds, thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of rats in the temple.  That was my real introduction to India and while an extreme it prepared me for what I would experience through the nearly 5000KM trip across India and ultimately to Kathmandu, Nepal and up into the Himalayas and up around Mt Everest.

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The Gates of Jodhpur, the Pink City

Three dips in the Ganges the dirtiest but holiest river in the world as well, was a fascinating experience that made me really consider the healing effects of water and help me appreciate and respect the faith of all people.

Amazing old city of Varansi

The Gattes… steps to the Holy Ganges river

The Gattes of the Ganges

As these men hosed down the steps into the water, not far pilgrims were drinking the holy water

Floating in the Ganges

Dipping in the Silty powerful Holy Ganges River

We drove nearly straight for 3 days across the Rajasthan province of north western India through the the most amazing cities of Jaipur (The Pink City) and Jodhpur (The Blue City) [map].

mehrangarh fort in jodhpur

Mehrangarh Fort high on the high on the hill in Jodhpur

Jodhpur Blue City

Above Jodhpur the Blue City!

Jaipur Floating Palace

Floating Palace near Jaipur

It was after seeing these awesome examples of great kingdom with palaces and forts, that I arrived in Agra the home of the Taj Mahal.  I had already been in India for about a week by the time I arrived.  We parked outside of the site, and walked.  It was a pretty good hike.  In our visits across Agra and even in the south in Pune and Chennai we hadn’t seen many tourists, but here we weren’t alone.  Here we across our trip we saw more tourists than we had seen in total.  I try to avoid tourist spots, but I also have to see the wonders of the world.  They draw me in.

Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal Mosleum – Designed for the Favorite Wife of the Emperor Shah Jahan built in 1632–1648 as a tomb

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India has such a rich culture.  Amazing people filled with joy, sadness, and a rich history.

From Taj Mahal, side buildings at Sundown

Watching sundown from the Taj Mahal

World UNESCO Heritage, Wonder of the World, as a true legend of eternal love of an Emperor for his favorite Queen!  It is an amazing story.

Though he spent much of his time subduing Hindu kingdoms to the south, Shah Jahan left behind the colossal monuments of the Mughal empire, including the Taj Mahal (his favorite wife’s tomb), the Pearl Mosque, the Royal Mosque, and the Red Fort. The Taj is an immense mausoleum of white marble, built in Agra between 1631 and 1648 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his favourite wife.  It is the jewel of Muslim art in India and one of the universally admired masterpieces of the world’s heritage.

Great Wall of China – New 7 Wonders of the World (1 of 7)

Greatest Wall in the World

If you ever feel like getting to China is just too impossible.  Have Faith.  It’s definitely possible.  I had seen most of Asia before I made it to China.  For some reason I just kept finding other things, and I felt like if I was going to visit China, I wanted to see it all, I wanted to have enough time.  I changed my attitude.  The forbidden city wasn’t going to remain forbidden any more.  I visited the Chinese embassy on a visit to San Francisco and within a couple of hours I had my visa.  I was on my way to the Forbidden city with explicit plans to see the Great Wall of China one of the most exclusive travel lists in the world… the New 7 Wonders of the World!

Forbidden City China at Night

The Forbidden City, in Beijing at night near Tiananmen Square

I decided, I wasn’t going to have time to spend a month or more in China anyway so I should break up my trip to China and plan it like I would Australia and simply break it into regions.  Same as seeing Canada, you just can’t see it all at once.  I’m sure many people say the same thing about the USA, or they should.  Those who go to NYC and Las Vegas and think they’ve seen the US are kidding themselves.  Those who rent an RV and Drive along route 66 are still only seeing one piece, but I understand the draw.

This post is in a series of 7 posts on the 7 Wonders of the New World

 

Forbidden City at Dusk

Gate to the Forbidden City

China is an amazing country.  Looking for a culture shock!?? China is awesome at that.  I’ll save another post for digging into my travels into China, and share my Wonder Experiences in a series.

172680_10150163215808783_4779820_o climbing to the great wall

We woke up early to head out to the Great Wall of China.  It was surreal.  Dux one of my techie friend’s from the Philippines who speaks great Chinese was our real connection to the locals.  He helped us arrange a van to take us out to the Great Wall.  We drove for a good hour from our hotel.  The homes were getting more and more spread out.  As we drove along it felt like we were entering the country side.  I can’t remember if it was 2 hours, but it seemed like when we thought we were there, it was another 20 minutes.  Then once we got into the parking lot, we realized it was going to be another 20-30 minutes of hiking up steps.  The wall wasn’t designed for accessibility.

More steps to the great wall of China

Seeing the wall was promising, but we could really see it from the car.  We could see it weaving across the mountains for as far as we could see.

Towers of the Great Wall of China

At first it just seems a lot like a wall made of bricks, but then as you take it in… in its magnitude, and splendor to realize its age, its role in history and in its preservation of culture and history… and then really start to understand the sacrifice of this man made feat.  It brings humility and awe.  Lots of sacrifice.

While we all decided we didn’t want to go down the way we came up, Michael and I decided we wanted to go for a walk, and the other guys decided to take the roller coaster.  There were some interesting options once on top.  You could walk 2 miles to a gondola one way, or another way was the gravity based roller coaster with a metal track, it was next to an impromptu zoo.  We all decided we’d meet back at the bottom of the hill near where they were.

(A few of these photos are from Michael at Sharing The Globe a Traveling companion and Great photographer.)

Snaking across the hills - great wall of China

Walking from tower to tower it seems close, but it really isn’t.  It might be 1KM or more between towers.  The area where we were while there were a number of tourists, we found space to be alone and found it not too challenging to take people-less photos.  Yes, that’s me trying to run between the towers.  It isn’t the easiest running, but I imagined those working the walls trying to share a message.

Running on the great wall

I picked up the Chinese Police hat.  While it didn’t go with my jacket, I did like the fun reactions from the locals.

Deep Thoughts on the wall of China

After walking along the wall for a few miles at a pretty fast pace (Can you believe there is a Great Wall Marathon?), I took a couple of early moments to reflect on this incredible structure.  While I know it wasn’t all maintained as well as where we saw it, it was amazing about it.  It started as far back as the 7th century BC against intrusions and nomadic groups and incursions and in protecting the spice route.  Amazing how these towers were used in defense and in notifying the troops of what was coming.

How long is it actually?  Depends on if you count the structures that also help support the defense of the wall.  I’m going to say more than 5000 miles!  Wikipedia proposes a couple of different estimates:

The Great Wall stretches from Shanhaiguan in the east, to Lop Lake in the west, along an arc that roughly delineates the southern edge of Inner Mongolia. A comprehensive archaeological survey, using advanced technologies, has concluded that the Ming walls measure 8,850 km (5,500 mi). This is made up of 6,259 km (3,889 mi) sections of actual wall, 359 km (223 mi) of trenches and 2,232 km (1,387 mi) of natural defensive barriers such as hills and rivers. Another archaeological survey found that the entire wall with all of its branches measure out to be 21,196 km (13,171 mi)

This post is designed to be post 1 in a series of 7 of the Wonders of the World. Follow this blog to be notified of the rest of the series.

Yosemite Valley Natural Wonder

Yosemite Valley

I’ve been to California many many times, but it wasn’t until I explicitly planned to go to Yosemite that it happened.  I’ve seen pictures, and heard stories about it’s beauty, but it never popped until this summer.

Our family had a family reunion in Lake Tahoe, and with an open weekend, it took a little convincing, but we were all in.

I knew I wanted to have a full day in Yosemite and not just plan to drive through.  This was smart.  You really do need to plan to spend a full day to take advantage of what is there.  Imagine Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon… it’s one of those type of places.  You’re essentially 3-4 hours from civilization in any direction.  The good news is, there are options, but planning is important.  I found that common travel sites would easily put you 2 hours away from the park when booking a hotel, so you have to be careful.  The hotels, motels and lodges in the park go quickly and are quite expensive.

We stayed at the West Entrance to the park at Yosemite Riverside Inn.  It met our needs, and even included breakfast.  We were most happy with the distance to the park and being able to wake up and begin our journey into the park.  The first sight of Yosemite valley was incredible.

Yosemite valley

Half Dome in the Distance… My first view of it. Inspiring!

Personally it only took this one view, to know that I had found what I was looking for.  Yosemite was a natural wonder.  This was an ancient canyon with God’s fingerprints on it.  This place has serious earth history and a magical valley that would attract earths inhabitants all over it.  This special valley would awe and inspire and enchant anyone who sets their eyes on it.  In many ways simply traveling through this valley can bring one closer to God, because it makes man feel small.  In so many ways the pride of man can be stilled by standing on one of these rocks.

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El Capitan – What a Serious Megalith

While I didn’t really take the opportunity to climb these mega stones carved out of the valley, I did spend hours driving around them and went on a couple of easy hikes up to the falls, and one to a lake.  I spent most of the day in the valley with a bunch of other people I was trying to ignore.  You can see a few of these insignificant creatures in my picture.  Ignore the crowds, it’s still worth it. There are times of the day when you can get there ahead of the crowds, but still you have to do it anyway… It’s amazing and it does bring one closer to ones creator.

yosemite bridal veil

Yosemite Falls is 2,425 ft.  The highest waterfall in North America and in the top 10 in the world.  I’m going to be visiting the highest in the world, Angel Falls, in Venezuela and planning to spend 3 days to see it.  Had I known how amazing this was and how many of the top waterfalls in the world are in this park I would have given it more priority.  When I think of falls in the US, I think of Niagra, but that’s a volume thing.  Here you can plan to go when the run off is at it’s highest in the spring and get a real show.  Remember this park reminds man, that he is insignificant.  Some people get hurt or worse, trying to prove they can conquer these things.  With over a dozen falls, and hikes to nearly all of them, there are tons of things that people will do.  I would have liked to have tubed the river, or rode horses… lots of great activities in the park.

Things to do:

  • Horseback riding
  • Rafting
  • Hiking (Falls, Trails, Loops)
  • Rock Climbing
  • Biking
  • Tours
  • Loops Drive
  • Walking

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If anything Yosemite reminds us that there are things bigger than us in life.  Anytime you want to feel small. Visit the Yosemite Valley and it’s 1000 square miles of National park.  While you may feel like you weren’t alone while you were there.  You won’t regret it.

Plan Your World Cup 2014 Trip to Rio Brazil with 5 Adventures and Tips

Rio is amazing!!

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Rio is world famous.  Even beyond the wild and amazing cultural customs and tradition of Carnival, Rio is an incredible city.  The world will be looking at Rio as FIFA Host city in 2014 World Cup and holding it to a very high standard in 2016 when it hosts the World for the Summer Olympics.  the 2014 FIFA World Cup will be the 20th FIFA World Cup, an international football or soccer tournament that is scheduled to take place here in Brazil from June 12 to July 13 in 2014.  I hope this blog helps you make up your mind.

In my travels, Rio stands out as a big highlight, amazing city.  Some will ask if it’s safe.  Rio, every year as it gets closer to the world cup and the Olympics is worlds of change for the better.  While pick pocketing or mugging out at night on the beach in the dark may have been more common place in the past, this is now no longer happening.  The streets have been cleaned up and crime is getting stamped out and pushed back into dark areas of the flavelas.  Even these have undergone much change over the years.  Brazil and Rio care very much about their reputation and as the world is looking to see if Rio can stand up and be the world destination is it destined to be… it is accomplishing just that.  Yes, you should take care and don’t do anything stupid, and take the advice of your hotels.  Be smart and be cautious of what your plans are at night and you’ll be fine.  I went to some night markets near the beach and made sure to stay in lit areas where people were and was fine.  Those were both tips I got from locals.  The people are extremely friendly and there’s so much to do.  Rio is one of the most beautiful places on the planet.  It’s in my top 3 most beautiful cities in the world and may be #1.  You will not be disappointed if you plan your world cup travel to Rio.  It will be amazing.  Planning for the Olympics and on the fence?  Rio will fulfill all your dreams!

Rio is really working on response and planning for these major events.  See Rio Goes High-Tech, With An Eye Toward Olympics, World Cup

Copacabana at night - welcome to rioCopacabana beach

Beaches!

Rio is known for it’s beaches some of the best known are Copacabana and Ipanema, but Botafogo, Praia da Barra da Tijuca, and Praia do Flamengo are also amazing beaches and there’s even more.  There are lists of top ten beaches in Rio.  The beaches are long and have long stretches of sand and boardwalks with varying population, some can get quite crowded.  It’s not hard to get a hotel right across from one of the beaches.  There’s water beyond the beaches as well with places like parque lage

 

Corcovado Parque Lage

New Wonders of the World – Christ Redeemer Statue

Rio has very unique topography.  Huge granite hills, but one of them has the world famous Christ Redeemer statue.  Corcovado, is the destination.  It’s not to miss.  Incredible views, amazing views of pristine beaches.  Some of these stone hills have special access with funicular and others with chair lifts.  You must get up on Sugar Loaf.  Day or night… the views are absolutely incredible.  You can even hike parts of it. There are tours you can take from your hotel, or bus routes to the funicular.

Visit Christ the Redeemer Christ the Redeemer Statue in Rio

The views are unlike anywhere else.  You feel like you’re on another planet.  The closest examples I’ve found to the rocks are like haystack rock in Oregon, and Meteora in Greece, and feel like Capetown, but ultimately it’s more than all of these.  Bigger variety and 6 million plus people spread across over a dozen of these huge rock mounts that have been carved out over thousands or millions of years.

Hang gilding and Paragliding

Jump off this mountain as a paraglider or with a hang glider

I’ve jumped off that mountain.  That grassy area is where I landed.  For around $100-150 you can hang glide or paragliding as a student of the art.  You get a special license to do the jump.  The prices vary greatly at different hotels.  Different companies charge different rates. I even found there was some flexibility and was able to carve off a little off the price.

looking down on the worldGliders

Soak in the culture, the music and dancing… Let loose, relax and feel the Carnival spirit…

For the most lucky watch the two weeks of Carnival on the streets, where it all happens.  Then at night settle down to dinner and Samba Music maybe some Brazilian kick boxing.  Find a samba school for the most authentic experience.  Also watch in addition to samba, the choro, and bossa nova music.  Rio is the birthplace of all of these.

Carnival DancersCarnival Costumes Amazing Brazil at Night

 

There are a lot of reasons to visit Rio.  You’ll be sure to experience the relax attitude of the people and learn to enjoy yourself one way or another… either sitting on the beach, enjoying the music or the fresh meats and seafood… amazing food!  My favorite was the beans stew feijoada.  Ask a local for the story.  They have a long history. Don’t miss the Brazilian most famous dish, the feijoada (fay-zho-AH-da), a black bean stew filled with big chunks of meat, like chunks of sausages, pork or beef.  Rio is famous for it’s seafood as well.  The fresh juice bars with fresh coconut are also so fresh and great.  Very refreshing after a good surf or after soaking up the sun sitting out on the beach.  Enjoy a fresh one for me.

 

Looking for more details… visit the wikitravel page for Rio.

 

Estádio do Maracanã - panorama

Picture courtesy wikicommons

The Estádio do Maracanã is incredible.  Huge stadium that has undergone special renovations to make it a top stadium in the world.  Following its 50th anniversary in 2000, the stadium underwent renovations which would increase its full capacity to around 103,000. After years of planning and nine months of closure between 2005 and 2006, the stadium was reopened in January 2007 with an all-seated capacity of 82,238

Planning for the games or not, it is one that the locals would tell you not to miss… You can visit the Maracana, once the largest stadium in the world and currently largest in all of South America will be host of the FIFA 2014 World Cup and final.  Maracana MuseumIt even includes a museum!  The tiny picture to the right from the museum has photo ops.  Yeah, it’s a little silly, but football fans love the shrines to their favorite players and the chance to be part of the action.

As a frequent global traveler, let me share a few tips for a successful trip to Rio, Brazil…

5 Tips to Prepare Your Trip to Rio de Janeiro

1. You may need a visa.  US Citizens NEED a visa.  This is something you need to prepare for around a month in advance.  Hopefully around the time you have your travel plans.  There are express visa options, but don’t delay.  Getting the visa MUST be done in advance and can not be done at the border.  You’ll be looking for the tourist visa. You’ll need at least 2 blank pages in your visa and 2x2in photo.  I recommend the 10 year visa.  The cost difference between the shorter visa doesn’t warrant it.  It will cost you around $200-300 USD to get the visa and could easily take 2-3 weeks to make it all happen.  You will be sending a copy of your passport to get the visa, so make sure you plan accordingly. If this is your first trip, you’ll want to get your passport months in advance.  Even if you’re from Canada, China, Cuba, Egypt, India, Japan, or Mexico you NEED a visa.  Citizens of the UK and EU including Turkey are exempt and don’t need a visa.  So check to make sure.

2. Prepare to pay – Brazil isn’t a poor country, despite what you hear in the news.  Food can be quite expensive.  The Brazilian Reals are a strong currency.  You will definitely love the experience.  It’s a tourists dream to go here, but you may have to shop around if you’re coming from a poor country to see the match.

3. Hotels – Prepare way in advance for hotels and hostels.  Do your research. These will fill up fast for the World Cup and Olympics or Carnival.  Consider options like AirBnB and VRBO as alternative to the typical conventional options sometimes these can even be cheaper than hotels.com.  If you don’t mind paying in advance, Expedia and Priceline can save you a lot in some of the major hotel chains, but there are a lot of options, so you’ll need to shop around.

4. Bring your swimming suit and a jacket – while Rio seems like it has the perfect weather.  The nights can be cool, and you may end up in the hills where it’s chilly.  Don’t forget your suit and sun screen.

5. Travel and Money strategies – I spoke in length about how to put money in more than one place such as some in your carry on bag and NOT in your back pocket.  With the events you don’t want to be sorry about having all your money getting swiped in one place.  You should visit my 10 simple tricks for world travel, so you’ll be thinking wholistically about how you pack and what your backup strategy is on money.  The way you pack can make a big difference on your flexibility for a trip to Brazil.

If you’re debating between adding on excursion trips to Sao Paulo or Iguazu Falls.  Iguazu in my opinion is the best waterfall in the world from a tourist perspective, and I’ve seen 4 of the top 5 in the world.  It’s awesome.  Sao Paulo, while a great city to do business in, wasn’t that exciting from a tourist perspective.

Joel’s Travel Highlights 2012

Baby Penguins

Baby Penguins
Baby Penguins

In some ways, I have ultimately travelled less this year than in the last 3 years, but in other ways I really made it count when I was traveling… from visiting new countries to building new communities.  This post is a cross post from my technical world and my travel world in a wrap up of my travel for the year.

Taking someone who loves travel more than nearly anything and saying be very selective about where you go. You end up with some incredible trips. In my quest to combine my love for exploring the unknown and building and creating communities in places where they don’t exist has been an epic journey which inspired and kicked off my travel blog this year… http://travelingepic.com  Can you believe I’ve posted over 30 travel posts since April 2012 when my travel blog launched?

Here is a list of some of the Epic places along with the incredible new communities launched in this beautiful world of ours.

1. #STPSA Sharing the Point South America and Antarctica – HUGE Kudos to AvePoint and Dan Holme. Ricardo MVP from Costa Rica/Chile was our regional host. We spoke in Santiago Chile, Montevideo Uruguay, and Buenos Aires Argentina and even spoke to the Penguins. The first community gathering ever in Uruguay and the largest gatherings ever in Argentina. One baby penguin launched me into Youtube stardom with half a million views and video and personal mentions on Huffington Post, Discovery.com, ABC, CBS, FOX, and viewed on TV on FOXNews, and mentioned by friends on TV in Japan and Costa Rica and more. Dave Rubenstein was gratious enough to allow us to give the debrief of the Community Building Activities in South America at SPTechCon in SF following a Seattle/Redmond trip reconnecting with a lot of MS friends including night out with MVPs gathered for MVP Summit and flight with Ricardo and share some select photos and videos.

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2. Microsoft Bulgaria #MSDAYS made the next community building trip happen. Radi and Tihomir were amazing hosts. Was great spending time with Radi (SharePoint MVP & MCM) and his team… and I *really* enjoyed meeting the SharePoint User Group at a traditional Bulgarian restaurant in Sofia Bulgaria. Amazing food. Amazing place. It was Darko who helped organize and with our help launch the Macedonia community. That was a big highlight of that trip. Their first and largest SharePoint gathering. Darko a SharePoint MVP in Skopia Macedonia took care of us, but even beyond that it was Betim and his group of SharePoint/SQL friends in Kosovo helped me understand there really are SharePoint people everywhere. Spent 3 of the 5 layover visits to Istanbul this year. Let me tell you, Istanbul is an AWESOME hub. Great place for a layover and the Turkish lounge is awesome, one of the best in the world. Anatolia and ultimately Goreme and Cappadocia are amazing. Highly recommended for your bucket list. UNESCO highlight. The underground cities with space for 5000 residences will blow your mind if the dozens of 4th century cave churches and cave monasteries don’t. Easily one of my favorites places in the world.

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3. #STPAfrica Sharing the Point Africa – Africa is the place where there’s a lot of SharePoint Communities yet to be built. This would be my 6th Trip to Africa. I LOVE IT. It provided me the opportunity to reconnect with the very strong communities of Johannesburg and Capetown. I remember the first SharePoint Saturday in Johannesburg and Capetown from years ago. It’s amazing how strong the communities are with Veronique in Johannesburg. Alistair did an amazing job in Capetown. Was great to support both of their efforts on this trip. On our way over to Africa we stopped in Dubai on an 8 hour layover and helped get the community together. I’ve spent time in Dubai back in 2008 for the SharePoint Conference, and for TechEd Middle East in 2010. It’s a great venue and fascinating people gathered from around the region. This time it was just the locals and helping Mai Omar Desouki, Baraah M Omari, Usama, and Salman. Mai asked us a bunch of questions about getting the Dubai community started. After the midnight dinner and the dozen passionate SharePoint folks, I think it was enough to help her get it off the ground. With Eric Harlan’s help, Mai and others helped do their first SharePoint Saturday this past weekend and I’m happy to report the community is doing well. Another new community we launched was with the help of Jim Bob Howard. He has been pinging me for over a year trying to get a SharePoint Saturday organized in Kenya. What an event that was… over 100 people attended and with the help from locals we helped them get a regular user group organized. They’ve been able to meet since with great attendance. Hiking Mt Kilimanjaro in Tanzania was the peak of physical tests of my life. 61 Miles later I’d hiked the longest I’ve ever done. A side visit to Ethiopia to do some philanthropic work and vacation to visit the stone churches of Lalibela and excursion to visit the Ark of the Covenant in Axum, and great castles of Gondar.

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4. Slovenia SharePoint Days 2012 in Kransjska Gora, Slovenia and SharePoint Adriatics in Zagreb Croatia both had very incredible events. The Slovenian event has been going on for years. This is my second annual, and I plan to go back next year. Branka and Urska and the whole crew at Kompas Xnet in Slovenia really know how to put together an event that makes you feel special. Toni and Nenad (MVPs in Croatia) did an incredible job. From there after a great stopover in Istanbul (site of a large SharePoint conference I spoke at in 2008) we traveled to Tbilisi, Georgia. This was SharePoint virgin territory. Microsoft themselves has only been in Georgia for 2 years with an office of 6 passionate folks. Georgia was originally planned to be a dinner. With Microsoft’s help, especially David from MS, we pulled off more than double the largest event they’ve ever had with over 50 people in attendance. We were feeling pretty good when we met our friends from Armenia. Manvel from Armenia organized a van from a relative to drive 5 hours one way to pick us up in Tbilisi. They even had to get Visas to travel to Georgia a place they hadn’t travelled prior. Huge sacrifice. When we arrived at the envisioning center in Yerevan we found they had 96 folks register and 125 people show up!!! That’s never happened in all of the SharePoint events I’ve ever attended. We’ve never had more folks show up than register. We usually assume 50% is pretty good for a free event. How about 125% on a Friday night at 7PM! We were very well received and had an incredible time with the community in our 3 hour event on a Friday night. Very humbling. I’ve seen this community getting organized. Both of these communities are packed with passionate people.

 

Garni Pagan Temple in Armenia

New UN Countries Visited 2012: Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, Antarctica (3 TCC), Albania, Kosovo (TCC), Macedonia, Bulgaria, Kenya, Tanzania, (Zanzibar TCC), Ethiopia, Georgia, and Armenia + Family UN Travel: Barbados, St Lucia

New Communities Launched/1st Meeting: Uruguay, Argentina (there was previously an online one in South America), Dubai, Kosovo, Kenya, Georgia, Armenia

Total Countries: 126 (TCC), 97 UN strict rules (100 UN if you count airline stops)

Travel related Bucketlist items completed 2012:

  • Visit all 7 or 8 continents (that the Americans count)
  • Hike to the peak of Mt. Kilimonjaro
  • Have a Youtube Video go viral and get virtually famous Smile
  • Go on a Cruise (first cruise was to Southern Caribbean)
  • Visit the Underground Cities and Cave Churches of Cappadocia (Turkey)
  • Visit the Rock Hewn Churches of Ethiopia
  • Scuba Dive Africa (Zanzibar)

You can read about these trips and more on http://travelingepic.com if you heard about something I haven’t blogged about, let me know what you want to hear more about!

O Little Town of Bethlehem: Touring Palestinian Territories


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With all this talk about air raids in Palestine and rockets in Israel makes you think it must be pure chaos.  It’s far from the truth.  The people I’ve met are use to the rockets coming from Gaza into southern Israel and haven’t been really concerned until as of late, but the latest special rockets with targets in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem bring in a whole new dynamic.  That’s serious when random rockets can reach Jerusalem and Tel Aviv! I probably won’t be taking my family to Jerusalem for a couple of years, but it is one of my favorite cities in the whole world.  I love hearing the stories in church and thinking about the places I’ve been.  I’ll tell you more about Bethlehem as well.  There’s nothing like it. Seeing the struggle in person is unreal. Tours can be organized to go to areas in the West Bank from Jerusalem. My first encounter with Palestinians was in Jordan, a real must in the middle east and required on your collection of the 7 wonders of the world to see Petra the amazing place made famous by Indiana Jones. Later I met a friend of a friend in Qatar who took me around Doha and discovered this national Judo champ was Palestinian.

Also make sure to pull out a map of the middle east.  There’s still a big difference between the West Bank and Gaza.  Here are some clips from the BBC maps that show the complication.

imageimage

The two governments (3 if you count Hamas, but lets focus on the West Bank) while attempting to be united are still not there.  I’ve even had friends who have visited Gaza while rockets were going off, and felt unaffected.  It’s wild.

I’ve visited Israel and the West Bank three different times, and outside of security and check points…  I really enjoyed my time.  I do have friends in the technical community in the Israel Office/SharePoint User Group and in Palestine SharePoint Users Group.  In fact I randomly came across SharePoint training on the streets of Bethlehem! If you don’t know what SharePoint is, don’t worry.  For me it’s what gets me around the world.  It’s the technology that I speak about and cover on my technical blog at http://sharepointjoel.com

On your holiday you must go to the dead sea.  Believe me, the mud that is shipped all over the world is amazing.  You must cover yourself from head to toe and then take a dip.  The worlds lowest bar in the world (Kalia –418 meters) is next to the dead sea.  There are rumors that Sodom and Gomorrah from the Old Testament is the same location as the dead sea.  Avoid your eyes and ears from the salt water, but do lay back and float.  It’s amazing.  I’ve tried it in the Salt Lake in Utah, and it works, but the salt content isn’t as dense and it sure stinks in Utah because of the brine.

Dead Sea Mud Bath

Must see places in Palestine

1. Bethlehem – Church of the Nativity (in the West Bank)

O little town of Bethlehem.  I sing about it every Christmas season.  You may too.  I will now never have a Christmas come and go where I won’t be thinking about the little town and what I experienced.  There are pilgrims that visit all the time.  I’m sure the numbers will be less this season than last, but it should be bucket list item for all Christians if not Muslims and Jews as well.

Bethlehem Nativity Entrance

Go through a small opening, then venture through some amazing columns then wind yourself behind the alter and back under and down some stairs to a small little area where you’ll find a star.  This star marks the place where the Christ child was born.

Bethlehem Star

Holy Church of Nativity Rules

Jesus is special to both the Christians, Muslims, and Jews.  So while he may not be the Son of God to all faiths, you can have conversations about Jesus in all circles and they know where he was supposedly born.  Many assume that Palestine is nearly all Muslims.  This is also not the case.  There are a lot of Palestinian Christians and many Israelis that may or may not be Jews referred to as settlers, and Bedouins that may or may not be Muslim.

2. The Tomb of the Patriarchs and Mosque in Hebron (in the West Bank)

Tomb of the Patriarchs and Mosque Hebron

The burial place for Abraham, Sariah, Isaac, Rebeccah, Jacob (Israel) and Leah.  Built by King Herod King of Judea about 2000 years ago.  Sacred to Christians, Jews, and Muslims.  2nd holiest site for Jews after the Western Wall.

Another fascinating part of Hebron is the fact it’s divided in two.  As is the Tomb and caves.  You’ll find 10 days where the Jews have the whole thing, and that’s the day we happened to have been visiting, so we didn’t get inside, but we did get to experience what it was like peering in from the Palestinian side into the Jewish settlement side.

3. Dome of the Rock – Jerusalem and nearby Al-Aqsa mosque (silver dome)

Dome of the Rock

The Dome of the Rock is located at the visual center of a platform known as the Temple Mount.  For Muslims this was where Muhammad’s night journey took place.  Many believe it was the site of the Solomons Temple.  In 2006, the Temple Mount was reopened to non-Muslim visitors between the hours of 7:30–11:30 am and 1:30–2:30 pm during summer and 7:30–10:30 am and 1:30–2:30 pm during winter. Non-Muslims are prohibited from entering after 2:30 pm and may not enter on Fridays, Saturdays, or Muslim holidays.  In the few times I’ve tried to visit, I keep missing the cutoff.  You really do have to plan ahead for this one.  I’ve seen the guards do a quick test to determine the faith of Muslim believers in off hours.  The nearby Al Aqsa mosque is believed to be the location where Muhammad ascended to heaven.

Note: Many Orthodox rabbis regard entry to the compound to be a violation of Jewish law. This is based on the belief that since the time the Temple was destroyed during the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the precise location of the Holy of Holies, the sanctuary entered only by the High Priest, is not known. Hence a restriction applies to the entire compound.  I’ve heard religious Jews should not plan on visiting for this or other reasons.

Jews have traditionally regarded the location of the stone as the holiest spot on Earth, the site of the Holy of Holies during the Temple Period.  According to Jewish tradition, the stone is the site where Abraham prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac; Muslims believe it was Ishmael, not Isaac, who was to be sacrificed.

4. Arafat’s Tomb in Ramallah

Tomb of Arafat

Yasser Arafat who for years represented the Palestinian Liberation Organization for years and years is buried in this tomb. 

Abbas’s palace or equivalent to the white house is nearby

Growing up and seeing Arafat on the television is still fascinating.  Now there’s a mystery surrounding his death.  Was he poisoned?  He body is going to be Exhumed on November 26th to determine the cause of death according to China Daily News and Aljazeera.  Also just outside where the compound was you’ll find the flags of the nations that recognize Palestine as a nation.

While the UN doesn’t yet officially recognize it, UNESCO has joined the ranks, and has sacrificed US support as a result.  It will be fascinating to watch to see if there’s a two state solution in the works.

5. Jericho and the Mount of Temptation

It’s a beautiful view, and there is even a gondola ride.  This is the supposed place where Christ was tempted by Satan and told to jump and have the angels save him.  Great views, and old monasteries.  We walked it on a beautiful night followed by some gelato.  As I walked the roads of Jericho, I thought of my Sunday school stories of Joshua and marching around the city.  “Choose ye this day whom ye will serve, but as for me in my house, we will serve the Lord…” this is still a very powerful statement and one I use with my kids.

Jericho at Night

Getting from place to place between Israel and Palestine, and even getting to places like Bethlehem require passing through checkpoints that become bottlenecks.  As well, large walls divide the settlers from the Palestinian people.  These walls fashioned after the ones formerly in Berlin are huge, and tower above the people.  It does restrict travel and movement for sure.

There are some political prisoners that are often touted in political prisoner exchanges.

the Wall dividing Israel and West Bank

I was pointed to this map of Israel and Palestine while in Bethlehem.  While controversial it shows a perspective of the Palestinian people and their concerns of over land.  It’s not my point to say who’s right or who’s wrong.  Visit Israel and Palestine.  You’ll get both perspectives.  The people, the governing, depending on political alignment, and depending on where the person lives and the color of their card all may tell you different stories.  Keep an open mind.

Palestine Map

To the Garden TombBelow: Damascus gate is near the Garden tomb, another of my favorites and one that has a very peaceful spirit.  Watch the hours… it’s closed on Sunday and closed for lunch and not open late.  Be sure to get some awesome food, and enjoy the Muslim quarter in East Jerusalem, considered the capital of Palestine while.

In a traditional Palestinian scarf with some traditional Muslim women with head scarves. Just because they wear the scarf does not mean they are Muslim though.  Some women in Palestine will wear it for fashion.  As well, some Muslim women may decide not to wear it.

Palestinian Scarf

Palestinian food is good food.  They love their savory meats, stewed veggies, mezze, mixed grills and deserts.  Lots of lamb, goat, but hold the pork.  No pork for Muslims or Jews.

Palestinian Beef

Let me leave you with a final caution.  The situation between Israel and Palestine is complex and goes back for many generations, not just since 1967.  I don’t pretend to understand the full complexity of it, but I do appreciate the desires of the people on both sides to have freedom and peace.  I appreciate the desire of a two state solution, and even the one state solution with full citizenship, but there are people on both sides that aren’t happy with anything on the table.  It’s incredible to me that there really isn’t anything that will make the radicals on either side happy without horrible repercussions.

While I posted this blog with the intention of showing those that travel that there are some really interesting places to visit, I hope as well that those that visit will get to know the amazing people that have had some really rough times and a very bad rap.

I also hope the Israeli security will give me a break and allow me to visit every once in a while without interrogating me for 3+ hours.  By the way if you are visiting Palestine, make sure you focus on your trip in Jerusalem and Bethlehem, but any time spent in the west bank be prepared for a few hours in interrogation.  You’ll likely end up getting my treatment involving many trips through the scanners and someone going through all your socks and underwear with their wand.  So far I’ve never missed a flight.  Ironically the interrogation is always on the way out.

Israeli’s, don’t be offended by this post.  I love you guys too.  Tel Aviv is amazing, great beaches, love the Golan heights and I’m happy to attend a bar-mitzvah any time!

South Africa’s Kruger Wild Animal Park: Wild and Wonderful


I’ve visited South Africa on three different occasions and found it incredible each time.  I would go at the drop of a hat.  I still need to take my family with me, and yes if you were wondering.  I would do that.  Something that holds a lot of people back is they are sincerely worried about this world we live in and they see Africa as a whole as a place that isn’t safe or ready to be explored.  In my various adventures in Africa I’ve found South Africa to be a great hub to explore other parts of South Africa.  It does feel like that hut surrounded by barbed wire that protects me from the wild animals like in Kruger wild animal park, but then I realize I’m the one that’s in the cage.

After you’ve been to Africa and been on safari, a zoo will never be the same.  As I suggested, you are the one that’s in the cage.  During the day you venture out in your car, and in our case it was a rental car with insurance.  Our little car was chased by bull elephants a couple of times and we drove through herds of buffalo, zebra, and numerous horned antelope and other horned beasts.  Before nightfall we’d drive into a gated area that would keep the wild animals out.  We’d share stories with others and see what large animals had been spotted. 

The big 5 are on everyone’s mind.  You have to see what of the big 5 you can check off.  In our 3 days of driving around never once crossing an existing path, we saw them all but the leopard. 

  1. Elephant
  2. Rhino
  3. Lion
  4. Buffalo
  5. Leopard

Why it doesn’t include the Crocodile, the Hippo, Hyena, Giraffe or Zebra or other animals that are just as huge I don’t know, but I did see them as well.  I’d also recommend tracking down a troop of baboons.  It isn’t enough to just see one of these animals, you need to see them in hundreds and it again changes your perspective.

Kruger Wild Animal Park is a must.  If you visit South Africa you should definitely plan to do it.  There are other less wild parks where you can get closer to the big cats, but the wildness of it all will change your perspective forever.  This is the Yellowstone of wildness for Africa.  I later spent some time in Botswana that made me rethink what I thought was wild, but really this is a great introduction into the wilds of Africa.  As well having spent some time in Kenya and Tanzania, I think this is a great place to start.  Tons and Tons of animals and you can do this on your pace.  They’ve even got maps that point out the climates and what to expect in the various ecosystems.

Eric Harlan, a Microsoft engineer and I ventured out into Kruger with his massive camera and a very expensive rented lens that made the far off animals seem within reach.  It was Eric’s first foray into the wild, and he to this day refers to the changes that took place on this trip.  Not just the animal wild and crazy, but our walking border crossing into Mozambique to Maputo.  An incredible experience I’ll have to share in another post.  Eric and I have since been on a few other trips, but Kruger stands out.  We flew into Johannesburg, stayed with a good friend in Joburg.  The next morning we rented a car and were in a hut in the park that night.  It was a good drive and we barely made it before they closed the gate, but it was a beautiful drive.  After 3-4 days in Kruger we went into Mozambique and got the human side as well as in Swaziland before arriving in Durban where we did our speaking gig at TechEd Africa before flying to Capetown for the first SharePoint Saturday event in Africa… 

If you want to go on a guided safari you have lots of options.  First you can take a guided tour and they will track down the animals for you.  As well, you can take your vehicle into the park and at each of these self enclosed villages that often include bungalow, or beehive huts, and more primitive tent spaces.  You decide how primitive you want to go.  At these places you can pay to go on a morning or evening walking tour, or go out on a safari on a huge truck that can go on special routes and get quite close to a watering hole, or a night safari that has exclusive access to the routes during the dark.  They are all freaky and I highly recommend them all.  Each of them is a real experience… having a guide with an elephant gun in the front and one in the back… and walking through grass thinking wasn’t that a lion roar and it was, is truly exhilarating.  Very raw.  We tracked down some rhinos grazing who eventually smelled us and ran off, but not before we were about 10 feet away… and followed some buffalo and zebra.

When you stop for lunch at one of these rest camps you can eat gazelle or other meat that you’d never thought possible didn’t think you’d ever eat Wildebeest.

At night we tracked a lion, a bull elephant who pushed our safari truck, and spotted a family of hyenas with tiny little 3 babies.  Incredible experiences.  It was amazing to see these animals in their habitats on their terms.

It’s unreal when you see a HUGE elephant looking straight at you and there’s nothing more than a little metal or tiny little glass window between you and them.  On the walking safari, you feel very vulnerable.

Do I recommend these experiences.  Oh, definitely.  Is it safe, you’ll have to ask your guide what his stats are.  These are experiences of a lifetime… 

Kruger Wild Animal Park

Above is a video of footage from my camera mixed with some photos that Eric took.  He snagged the lion photo as well.  Getting that lion photo was a real experience.  We had gone two days without seeing a lion, and we really wanted to see one.  On our maps we tracked down the area where we should see one, and asked as well around camp.  We saw a car that was stopped and pulled up quietly behind it.  A man in the car had a camera pointing into some tall grass.  We must have sat there for 5 minutes before we saw a tail swish and realized what we were waiting for.  A group of lionesses were sunning.  Over the next half hour we’d get nearly out of the car (not recommended and anything more would be against the rules) to get the best viewpoint.  All of a sudden they jumped up looked around… (maybe smelled us?) and then ran off.. it was beautiful and an experience I will cherish.

Lalibela Ethiopia and the Famous Rock Hewn Churches

St Georges Cross

8th wonder of the world Unesco Rock Hewn Churches

In our world there are few places shrouded with as much mystery, culture, and history as Lalibela the second holiest place in Ethiopia.  Designated as the 8th wonder of the world, and a UNESCO world heritage site.  These rock hewn churches made in the 16th century are an ancient treasure built by Angels.

St George in Lalibella Ethiopia

Lalibela starts with the story of a King that as a baby was shrouded in bees.  The bees weren’t bees at all, but angels.  The angels took him up to heaven and showed him how to make tools and how to carve churches from rock.

Megalithic Rock Hewn Church

The story doesn’t end there.  King Lalibela shared the ideas of the tools that were ahead of their time, and the humans took the day shift and the angels took the night shift and together they built amazing churches that are built with deep symbols of early Christianity.  Rather than pilgrimage to Jerusalem at a time when the Christians had been kept from safely visiting Jerusalem and the other holy sites of Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and the life of Jesus.

Narrow valleys carved into the rock can take you from church to church, each with it’s own story.  The largest megalithic church in the world is found among the 11 rock hewn churches in Lalibela.  All of them are within a couple of miles, and easy walking distance.  You can easily spend a day or two.  Loyal Christian orthodox priests act as guides for a negotiated price.  I was trying to explain that these churches were a lot like the church caves in Cappadocia, but our guide wouldn’t have it.  These were literally carved by Angels.  It was great to have a guide who was so loyal.

Coptic Priest

At lunch we stopped at a little place.  We were told it was Friday and so we couldn’t order the lamb.  It’s fasting day.  So we ordered the fasting food.

Injera

The Ethiopian fasting food is made up of various veggies. The food is designed to be eaten with your hands and is designed to be a social family experience.  Beets, potatoes, lentils, cabbage, tomatoes, amazing food.  It’s served on a traditional injera which is not only edible, but is how you eat the food.  Rip off some injera and wrap it around whatever you’d like.  Sometimes it comes in a roll so you can rip off a little and have plenty to eat a nice big pile of food.  There really is a lot of variety in the food, served on large platters.  Ethopian food really grew on me.  I had some in Zanzibar and a few years ago in Capetown.  It’s really a fun food.

Tukul Village

Ahead of time I did a little research and came across the Tukul village hotel.  I *really* enjoyed it.  They were cheap enough, around $50-60 that both Paul and I got our own rooms.  The nicest rooms in town.  We had hot water 24×7, plenty of power, and free wifi and it almost reached to our room.  I say 24×7 cause some say they have hot water, but it’s only on in the morning.  One also said they had wifi, but it was a hard wire in a room behind reception.  Across Ethiopia this was our favorite city and favorite hotel.

The rock churches were about a mile or two walk from the hotel.  When we’d walk around, a group of kids that would grow as we’d walk would tell us stories about their lives.  They were from the countryside.  In a sort of boarding type situation.  Groups of kids put together sharing a room.  Most, basically all, don’t have money.  Part of the story you hear from the kids is that they are going to school and need supplies.  Notebook, dictionary, and more.  If you’re around long enough you hear about how they are months back in rent and will get kicked out of their place.  Some don’t have shoes.  In some places I wouldn’t believe the stories, but I was convinced.

Lalibela Festival

After a day of walking through the rock churches, I overheard some amazing traditional music and as we got closer found what looked like the whole of the 15,000 of the village gathered to watch the dancing in a festival.  I was offered a prime seat, but instead found a spot next to some young kids.  One of the children was a blind boy, and his faithful friends who he held onto, one behind and one in front.  They filled me into what was going on.  None of them had parents around… they too were from the countryside and were here in Lalibela for school.  They told me about their need for notebooks and that they would struggle without them.  After hearing the price and seeing the sincerity I walked with the boys to the little store and purchased a pack of 10 notebooks which they shared.  Word got around, and we saw some kids that we’d seen earlier in the day, so we went back and decided we’d buy them out.  70 more notebooks, but this time the story was more sincere.  The 3 of us will share.  Ok.  I’ll get a notebook for all the children, there can’t be more than 70 around here.  I was warned by one of the older children that the kids will fight over the books.  Paul and I weren’t sure how to take the advice we were given of giving him all the books and have him distribute them.  Images of him running off, or only giving books to the older kids concerned me.  We gave him a pack of 10 and committed him to promising to share.  Then another and another and then Paul and I each took 10 or 20 to distribute to the growing crowd of children.  To my surprise, it was as if we were handing out food to a starving crowd who hadn’t seen food in ages.  Fights broke out, emotions ran high, as older kids pushed and little kids tried to find a way to get close to us.  I was nearly in tears as I saw the thirst.  As I saw one notebook ripped to shreds I put the rest under my shirt and said no!  I wasn’t going to waste these.  The needs were too great.  We were beyond sincerity.  This meant their ability to learn.  One child then explained to me that 3 kids could share one book.  I appreciated his willingness to share and gave him a book.  Another tried to line up and smile.  Those that were surrounding me reminded me of what I had seen earlier in the evening before all the amazing cultural dancing.  It totally reminds me of chickens fighting.

Ethiopian children dancing

At the beginning of the festival a sort of sacrament or communion moment was happening.  It was loaves and fishes Ethiopian style.  A large platter with a large loaf of bread was split among the elders of the group, then to the guests like myself and other adults.  I shared my ripped off piece with the blind child and his friends, really felt the spirit of what was going on, that is until it never made it’s way to the children, and others were chastised for grabbing at the loaf of bread.  I needed to find a way to distribute the books in a way that wouldn’t result in ripped up pages.  As I walked away to see how Paul was doing I secretly pulled out a book at a time with no one looking and gave it to the children who seemed heart broken.  It really lit them up.  Paul had given out his books and had a similar experience of kids fighting over them.  We were both really shaken by the experience and knew we’d never forget it.  Paul vowed to buy a dictionary, which he did, and ended up giving away wads of local currency to the children we walked with.  Hoping that they could buy some shoes for the boy with no shoes.  We don’t know how it worked out, and if the dictionary purchase was a ploy.  That one to me did seem that way me, but we both hope that it ultimately would be used for good.

Lalibela is in my top places of the world.  It has has special place in my heart.  I was only there for a couple of days, but it did change me.  It also makes me consider the wonders of our modern world and make me wonder what we’re contributing to our future.  How will they judge us based on our megalithic buildings propped up around economics.  These walls will fall much sooner than those in this little town of Lalibela, Ethiopia and they won’t mean as much as these either.