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.

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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.

Zombies on Kilimanjaro – My Trek on the Marangu Route

Mt Kilimanjaro Zombie

I left off the story of the Kilimanjaro Ultimate Hike at the end of Day 4 as we were going to bed at 6pm.  You should read that post before you read this one to really understand where we were.  We had just retired to our hut, and you could tell people that had stayed at this hut were mental.  It wasn’t unusual to see carvings all over the room of people who were out of their minds.  Some would talk about how sick they were, others how they were hopeful, but concerned.  These out of place carvings were all over the beds and walls, with stories of people from all over the world.  It really was a very global moment.  The Russians were down the Hall, the Japanese we had left behind at the last camp, and the Netherlanders were on their way down. It was actually the Canadian couple that were Bosnian immigrants really represented the mood of the camp.  The wife was feeling great and couldn’t wait to get started, the husband on the other hand couldn’t keep anything down and was feeling awful.

As I lay in bed, I wasn’t really tired.  Yes, I was exhausted but my head was really hurting.  I have had some really bad headaches in my life.  In fact one such headache made me wonder if I had a tumor or brain hemorrhage.  In my dream that night, I dreamt I died.  This headache was nearly that bad.  I had images of my head exploding on the mountain, but also thought about my son at home that had doubts that I could make it.  If you’ve ever heard that Kilimanjaro was a mental hike… it really is.  You have to dig deep and this was the night where the head game started.

Before I fell asleep I went through my bags and took 3 Aleve and a few high doses of vitamin C.  As well I took one more trip to the toilets.  The toilets at Kibo hut are the worst on the entire hike.  They really don’t want you to spend much time here.  The turkish toilets (non western) were non flushing hole in the ground style latrine.  They stunk and people who had been using them were sick… really sick.

When I got back in my sleeping bag, I was cold.  Really really cold.  I felt like I was freezing and started shivering.  I put on my thick socks and put on my coat which I had taken off.  Even then I was still feeling cold and my neck felt like it had a kink in it.  It was at this point I was starting to get a little worried.  What if I can’t get any sleep and everyone wakes up in a few hours and I haven’t slept at all.  I can’t do this hike with 2 days of no sleep, but I also can’t NOT do it.  I felt like I had to put it all off and get out of the mental games I was playing with myself and after a little prayer I was feeling relaxed again and closed my eyes.  What seemed like less than an hour later, the door was getting knocked on and I was closest to the door.  It was our wake up assistant cook bringing in the hot drinks.  No fresh water at Kibo.  Only that which was hauled up from Horombo hut and boiled.  My head was feeling some better and after eating a little something I started getting ready.  I had heard it was going to get VERY cold.  So I started putting on the layers, from the thermals, pants, to layers of shirts short and long, and then a rain coat which I’d shed in the first half kilometer.  My snow coat was good enough for me, I actually had to open it a little to get a little relief.  My hands were cold despite the gortex snowboarding gloves I was wearing.  They weren’t the best gloves, but I had a second pair on my waist if I needed them.  None of us bought the glove heaters.  There were some for sale at the bottom of the mountain, but none along the way.  I may have been tempted otherwise.

Day 5 the hike to the Summit 

After getting all our gear on, we gathered around for the details.  It was midnight and we were starting day 5 nice and early.  Our guide discussed that we would make it to Gilman’s Point by around 5 or 6am, and watch the sunrise from Uhuru, the highest point on Kilimanjaro.  He explained there would be 3 of them for the 5 of us, which seemed different than what I had overheard another group say where there were 2 porters for every person.  He did go on to explain our water would be frozen by 3am, and that they would be carrying boiling water in thermoses, and would get us water refills as we needed it after that point.  After not hearing any details about whether we were ok or not, I asked him what the warning signs were and what was NOT ok like a headache?  He explained that headaches are normal, even bad ones and that we shouldn’t be worried about a headache that goes away with medication.  What we should worry about are passing out, dizziness, but even vomiting is ok.  “Just vomit and you’ll feel better.” was his advice.

After the great pep talk we all turned on our headlamps and headed out into the dark.  The night sky was incredible.  A foreign sky with unfamiliar constellations minus Orion.  He stuck with us all night.  Very comforting to Mark, as his son is named Orion.  Polo, Polo something we had heard every day up to this point really sunk in.  Slowly Slowly they would say in Swahili.  This was the steepest trail we had experienced up to this point.  The switch backs were long, and the rocks and bouldering we did was long.  I never felt threatened at all.  No jumping from rocks where I felt I might die, but I did feel sore and tired, and cold all night, but to keep that off my mind we sang local Tanzanian hiking success songs we had heard at camp, and we dug deep and sang Reggae songs.  It felt very appropriate to sing our hearts out… “So, Don’t Worry, About a Thing… ‘cause every little things gonna be alright.”  Bob Marley would be proud.  I think the Bob Marley himself was listening to our prayer as only 2 nights later we would be greeted like brothers at a Rastafarian celebration in the fort in Zanzibar, but that’s another story.

As we trudged slowly up the mountain, all of us kept our spirits up while some went a little quiet.  It wasn’t unusual to see someone in another group as we passed, vomiting (so they’ll feel better).  As well, there were some other unsightly smells and things we saw that were unpleasant that made hiking that much more challenging.  Every couple of kilometers we would stop for a few minutes to catch our breath, get some new energy bar, or pure energy.  Up we went, no plants, lots of dust, lots of dirt and rocks, with only our headlamps to light things in our path.  As we’d look ahead we’d see strings of lights like a christmas tree with very visible switchbacks like the strings going back and forth on the tree.  It also seemed like prison gangs trudging along in the night at an even pace.  On this night we were determined to push ahead against all odds.  All of us were going to make it, we were sure of it.  Every so often we’d see someone heading back, with serious failure in their eyes.  They were just so sick and in such pain.  It tore at my soul.

With Gilman in our sights the horizon was starting to change colors.  The sun would soon be coming up.  We pushed ahead and what seemed close was still much further away.  It was important to focus on closer things than the top.  The next big rock was a much better goal.  After going from rock to rock to rock, we finally made it to the top of the mountain, just not yet the highest point.  We had arrived at Gilman’s point. 

We stopped to take pictures and take in the view.  It was incredible.  It felt great.  On the other side we could see the crater, and we could also see Uhuru, the ultimate destination and highest point of the peak.  As I was taking it in, many in the group thought they could make it to Uhuru for the final sunrise shot.  I wasn’t in a hurry and found Paul was of the same attitude.  Why rush it?  We have spent the last 6 hours getting to this point.  Let’s enjoy the view, watch the sunrise and then push on.  Gilman’s point started getting really crowded and after the other guys left, I encouraged Paul to push on a little further for a less crowded view where we could find a comfortable place to relax.  We found a great place on top with a couple of strategic rocks.  It felt great, and the sun definitely was warming things up.  It had been minus 6 on the way up and the wind chill made it feel like minus 20.  The two hats I was wearing up to that point weren’t enough to keep my ears warm, so I was really welcoming the sun.  We could see all the way to Kenya and I imagined the animals roaming around the Serengeti in the distance. (Not suggesting I could see anything, but our friend John was down there or at the crater… somewhere).

After a break, and having some prodding from the assistant to the assistant guide try to convince us to move on, we finally were ready and had what it was going to take to get us to the top, but what we were about to see I wasn’t ready for.

Zombies

As we moved along the top now at over 19,000 feet, I had seen and heard individuals along the way crying and digging deep, but I hadn’t noticed until now that between two porters I would see a person… limp, and often the eyes rolled back and barely a little bit of life.  I had heard of temporary blindness, and dizzyness, but what I was seeing was scary.  There were some people traveling along the trail that didn’t seem human.  They must have committed their guides to take them the rest of the way, or the guide must have felt the hike was that important.  Either way I was seeing people feeling the elevation in pretty serious ways.  Days earlier I had seen a stretcher being run down the mountain at top speed with the person’s face looking reddish purple.  Now I was seeing people that were nearly passed out and barely walking.

I’m so glad none of us got into that state.  It was cool to see our guides and porters taking anything we wanted to give them, from packs to coats, and such. 

Uhuru – The Peak

It was on this leg that I most appreciated everything that our Guide Daudi had done for us.  He had set a pace that really paid off on this day.  We knew that pace and all crept closer and closer.  Paul and I finally caught back up to the group and kept trudging along.  A couple of hours from when we left Gilman’s point we were at Uhuru the top of Africa and the top of the highest free standing peak in the world.  As well, it was all of our highest peaks by thousands of feet and all of us felt incredible.  At the peak at Uhuru at 19,341 ft (5895 m)!

The way down was painful, but I’m not going to be as wordy.

After we arrived at the top, I laid down for a little nap.  30 seconds into it, I got yelled at.  You can’t sleep!  Not at this elevation.  So I sat up.  No, get up!  They didn’t want to see me laying down at all.  I think they were worried I would turn into one of the zombies.

On the way down, the pace wasn’t as important.  No polo, polo was shouted out during the descent.  In fact I think they appreciated that we wanted to get down.  Getting back to Gilman’s point took half the time, and after that point, the world was changed.  It was no longer dark.  It was light.  What we saw were strange sights.

The strangest thing was all these switch backs took on new meaning.  We didn’t have to honor them.  We could simply dirt ski or slosh through the sleuss.  The dirt, rocks could almost be parallel skiied through.  The style was to slide and push ahead with each foot and lift at the end and start again.  It was a lot of fun actually for a while until my right knee really started taking on the stress.  It was getting painful and even trying to do the switch backs didn’t offer relief.  It was a steep trail and my mind was made up to simply get back to Kibo in hopes of getting a nap in. 

After a couple of hours of dusty rocky dust clouds of sluess we made it back to Kibo and were greated with our first and only flavored drink.  Tang! The drink of champions.  It tasted great.  Then we took off our boots and relaxed.  It felt great.  In two hours we were back up and told the beds were no longer ours and that we’d sleep in Horombo.  Yes, it would be the longest day in my life.  Another 7.5 miles after what I just did… 10,000 feet (5000 up and 5000 down) was what I had just done, and how I’d do another 4000?  I didn’t push back too hard.  I knew it was part of the plan.  After the nap, I took two of Mark’s magic 800 MG IBU profen hoping to take away some of the pain in my knee.

Below: Kibo at midday.  We were in the stone hut on the left.

Another 4-5 hours and we were back in Horombo… our home away from home.  That night 3 of us didn’t get up for dinner.  Popcorn, cucumber soup, and spaghetti with vegetables in red sauce sounded awful.  Two showed up for dinner and they made grilled chicken… the only night they had it.

The next morning we walked 20 miles to the bottom of the mountain to complete our trek.  We saw 2 more monkeys… It’s always a great day when you see a monkey…

At the bottom we gathered for one last picture under the A frame that began our trek.  We did it… 51 miles in total to and back to Mandara gate 2743 m

Who was the mystery mountaineering company?  We went with Ultimate Kilimanjaro, run locally by Zara Tours.

Thanks Colligo our SharePoint iPad app sponsor.  Their help it made this possible.

Also, my phone camera gave out on day 3, so this last couple of days photos are thanks to Michael Noel…  be sure to check out his extensive write up on climbing Kilimonjaro on the Marangu Route

Mt Kilimanjaro: The Ultimate Hike

The Road to Uhuru... Mt Kilimonjaro

I want to give you all the details to one of the most challenging, and incredible events of my life.  My SharePoint friends and I took on the largest free standing mountain in the world.  Known as the top of Africa, Kilimanjaro is also known as the highest hike that you can do that an adventurer can do without ropes and oxygen.  It’s the ultimate hike for normal people.  I once sat on a plane next to a guy who told me it is a mental hike… one that someone in incredible shape may fail at, but an 80 year old may accomplish.  I was fascinated and dreamed about.  Our hike along with three speaking events was sponsored by Colligo.  They’ve been incredible and great to work with.  Colligo has an iOS SharePoint app called Colligo Briefcase that supported our interests in sharing our photos, videos, and files on and off the mountain.

Marangu Route

L-R Gabriel assistant guide, Mark Miller (known on the trail as Babu or Grandfather in Swahili), Eric Harlan, Me, and Daudi in front our Guide, Paul Swider and Michael Noel

Above: At the beginning of Marangu Route: We are at the starting point here.  51 miles to go.  We arrived at the Kilimonjaro airport, drove an hour to the hotel where we met our guide and moved around our gear.  I rented hiking poles and a sleeping bag, they kept our gear in blue water proof bags that they brought to each stop. 

I carried with me a hip carrier with about 1.5-2 liters of water in 3 bottles, a half roll of toilet paper, small bottle of baby powder, small bottle of IBU Profen, diarahea pills, SPF 50 sun block, lotion insect repellent with high % deet, mole skin, sunglasses, and 4 protein bars, and 1 candy bar.  As well, I wore pants that could unzip the legs for shorts, and at times would carry my gloves.  We were hiking outside the rainy season otherwise I would have wanted a rain cover. My phone which doubled as a camera, and solar charger. (Wish I would have just gone with big dense battery packs. My friend Michael had 3 full charges with one of his battery bricks.)  There were no power outlets the entire 6 days.  Camera with tons of batteries may have been a better option than assuming my phone would work well enough.  All of this fit in my hip fanny pack designed with a couple of bottles on either side of it. 

Packing for Kilimanjaro

A couple of my friends had camel pack water carriers one on his hips and two on their backs.  One thing to note is after you start hiking you won’t see any more places where you can buy something you’re missing.  There is a little shop right across from checkin, where I could have bought something last minute for 4x the cost.

In my pack that the porters carried, I had a box of protein bars and some candy bars.  I also had all my high elevation pills, high vitamin C, a couple of additional variety of headache medicine, snow boarding gloves, fleece, snow boarding coat, rain coat, and scarf.  Underwear for the week, and variety of specialty hiking socks with varying thickness.  Shirts not cotton.  I brought another pair of shorts, but the pants I brought were very very dirty by the end, but I didn’t care.  Some people would.  All of this fit in a back pack.  I do encourage you to bring a couple of special food items that you can spread throughout the trip.  You burn a lot of calories, and even a little bag of chips and crackers I snagged from the airport tasted incredible after eating the same food day after day.

Porters

Our porters carried all of the food and cooking utensils. The porters are amazing.  They carry huge bags on their heads and have their backs loaded up.  They work for less than a dollar a day and hopefully get the tips that are left for them at the end.  Tips is something I won’t address.  I spent $130 in tips for money for guide, assistant guide, cook, assistant cook, and porters.  I also gave some of my gear to the porters, like my gloves, a pair of socks, and hat.

Our route was the Marangu route.  Read about all of the different routes on the Wikipedia Mt Kilimanjaro hiking routes page.  Here’s what it says about this route…

Marangu:

  • Nicknamed the ‘Coca-Cola’ route due to the tea huts where Coke can be bought along the way
  • The shortest and cheapest route, but less time to acclimatize, therefore lower success rate
  • Dormitory style accommodation
  • Less scenic due to ascent and descent on same route

While it says it is the shortest and cheapest… it is designed to be a 5 day hike, but many do this route in 6 days by doing the Zebra rocks and staying at Horumbo for 2 nights.  I didn’t see any coca colas being sold anywhere.  As well our group was big enough we had our own room every night.  I believe we were quite lucky on the last night where we staying in a room that had 16 beds.  I’m sure Paul paid someone off on that night, but it really was nice.

The first day is the most scenic route.  You’re hiking through jungle for the entire day.  We joked that the first day feels like a scout hike.  There’s nothing technical about it.  Really really enjoy this day, take your time and stop and take lots of pictures.  There isn’t anything strenuous about this day.  Basically it gives you 5 miles to make sure your boots are working and your day pack isn’t too much.  We saw monkeys, and heard lots of them at night.  The foliage is dense.  We saw a big blue monkey and a red winged monkey that reminded me of a squirrel monkey.

Jungle of Kilimanjaro

The first day of hiking from the bottom to Mandara huts from where we checked in is about 5 miles to the first hut.  The first night we stayed next door to a group of Russians.  When they refer to dormitory style… this was it.  We were lucky, and I do mean lucky to have our own room.  It was a room full of bunk beds and we again were lucky to each have our pick at top or bottom of our own set of beds.  We did have to go through the Russian room to get to the outside of the cabin.  This duplex only had one exit.  The bathroom was outside.  One western toilet and one turkish toilet.  They both were lacking, but it gets worse.  At least we had a choice.  I felt lucky to have brought toilet paper, but our guide brought us each a roll at that first hut.  I had less bargaining power with my team mates after we then had plenty of toilet paper.

That night at dinner we met a Swiss guy who had come down the mountain by himself.  He had summited the night before.  He told us stories about how crazy cold it was and about how he had got to the summit before sunrise and did the whole ascent in 3 hours. (something that would take us 6-8 hours.)  The cold was what we would hear over and over.  How his water froze, how his gloves were no good, and his face mask froze, and he had to just power through.  He warned us to wear everything we had.  It was great to hear someone who had made it, and it gave us some confidence while also a wake up call.

Day 2 Mandara:  we woke up early about 6:30am to wash, and get ready then went over for breakfast.  We had our first millet, and drinks we had coffee, tea, and milo (hot chocolate.)  As a non coffee, non tea drinker (yep LDS.)  I would drink a whole can of milo myself in the first few days.  It wasn’t just breakfast, it was breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  I started making up drinks with the honey, and hot water provided.  As a soft drink guy, I wasn’t use to the hot drinks every meal.  There wasn’t any cold water unless you had yours left over from the previous day.  We would get fresh water that had been boiled the night before after breakfast every day to fill up our containers.  Drinking is something you have to do a lot of.  We had tang or some orange drink after our summit, but wished I had seen that as an option.  Mix ins, is something we’d see quite often.  For breakfast we had toast, egg, and yes the millet, a warm porridge that we’d see every breakfast from then on.  It was a novelty the first day.  We also would some times see hot dog style sausage every so often.  We didn’t see much meat.  We later speculate that it was because we had a vegan with us that kept us from seeing any variety of meat or meat that took time to cook.  We had cold chicken once.  I bring up the food because really, three of us were so sick of the food that we veto’d the food after the summit and elected to go to bed after eating protein bars and try again in the morning.  We were so sick of cucumber soup, the same soup we’d seen every night.

Pictures of Kilimanjaro Hike

The day 2 hike was interesting.  In the morning you’re still in the dense forest, and half way through that hike you start seeing mossy trees and they become more and more sparse until even they start to change. 

Above the Clouds on Mount Kilimanjaro

At the end of day 2 we would arrive at Horombo after about 7.5 miles.  Horombo huts really became home.  We’d end up ultimately spending 3 nights in these A frame huts.  We had the entire cabin to ourselves.  The first night we stayed in a small one and a bigger one became available the next night.  Each morning we’d wake up and watch the sun rise and each night we’d look over the clouds until they parted and we could see all the way to Kenya.  Michael would venture off to find a cell service and data to see if he could get our tweets, pictures, and status updates.  I admit it was nice to get a quick call in from Horombo huts.  Yep, I’m still alive.

Kilimanjaro Crew

Day 3 – When we woke up I was feeling great.  I had been contemplating pushing the group from our original plan of a 6 day hike and pushing for a 5 day hike… yeah I was feeling great.  I knew that we’d hike to zebra rocks and be able to see the Kebo huts our next destination and it seemed so defeatest to turn around and come back to Horombo.  The same guys who were pushing for 5 day originally didn’t give in, and we kept with the plan.  Zebra rocks it was.  Beautiful naturally white and black striped rocks were the next destination. 

Zebra Rocks

One of the activities of the day was stacking rocks.  The plan was to acclimatize and relaxing and taking in the fresh air and relaxing was on the agenda.  We’d play an advanced version of jenga with these rocks.  You have to add a rock, on your turn but can’t let any fall.

Jenga Zebra Rocks

We got our first glimpse of the top of the mountain that morning.  Our ultimate destination was in sight.

Uhuru Peak

 

Day 4 We’d wake up at Horombo huts and set off.  As we climbed it looked like 15000 feet was ultimately a lot of rock and liken.  Not much foliage and that was for sure.  We left behind the last cactus and larger plants for much smaller shubbery.

Kilimanjaro Wasteland

At Kibo Huts we ran into a Microsoft Windows 8 group from the Netherlands!  Can you believe it.  Small world.  Group of 50 Microsofties had just attempted the summit to better understand our odds… 9 of them did not make it and had to head down the mountain.

Kibo Hut Kili Explorer

I was feeling the pressure. Not just of the climb, but the elevation.  Feeling head pain, headaches, and I’m sure I was also feeling soreness that was working it’s way in.  After arriving at Kibo we were told we would be fed dinner at 5pm and then sleep until 11pm when they’d wake us up to start hiking at midnight.  I was seriously worried that the headache I had wouldn’t go away, and it was interfering with my ability to get any sleep.  For the first time doubts started creeping in.  I started thinking what if my head explodes.  I start using diving techniques and try to “equalize” as if under water by plugging my nose and pushing forcing air.  I do this a few times and do feel a little relief.  I’m taking a large does of pills and I’m freezing.  The toilets at Kebo are the worst.  There is a section of toilets denoted for “tourists” and they are all turkish toilets and no running water.  Just a hole and these ones STINK.  They must be making people ill.  There’s a lot of foul smells from vomit and diarrhea.  Some people here are not doing well at all.  Word is that a Russian here has a device to check the oxygen content in the blood by simply inserting your finger.  When Michael says he may be able to arrange it, I’m interested.  Paul, myself, and Michael all pass the Russian’s test.  Apparently they sent one of theirs back to Horombo.  After feeling some better we get a pep talk from our guide.  He lays out the details for the night.  We are leaving at midnight, and we are to have all our gear on and leave our stuff at our beds.  We’ll be back soon enough.

Below: 5 Hours to GILMANS Point (Welcome to Kibo Hut 4700 Meters)

Kibo Hut 5 hours to Gilmans Point

To be continued…