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

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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

Christian Cave Churches and Monasteries in Cappadocia Turkey


Iconic Early 5th Century Christian Cross

As a traveler one of the thing that really stands out in digging in to understand a people is how much of culture is influenced by faith and religion.  In Europe you must visit the cathedrals because it was the center of the universe for the people.  In Istanbul you must visit the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia or you haven’t seen Istanbul. I have found Israel, Jerusalem, Bethehem, and Jordan to be quite amazing.  Even Cairo had places that reminded me of Moses and the red sea.  I have found the cathedrals across Europe to be quite amazing, even Ireland had some amazing history as it relates to early Christianity.  Rome and the catacombs.  Early Christians in Ireland, or Monserrat in Spain… incredible.  These early Christians driven into caves and into the mountains the hermits of Bulgaria and Macedonia are fascinating and must see.  The monasteries in the cliffs of Meteora where they survived from decimation for more than 500 years.  I love thinking about Thessaloniki or the Thessalonians.  My visit to Armenia and connecting with locals and making friends the thoughts and attitudes of the people cannot be separated from their faith as a people.  Mount Arrarat and Noah’s Ark and God’s dealing with the Armenian people is so deeply ingrained in their art, their life and spirit.

A One trying to understand the mind of the pre-Nicean church can do much study the rich art and paintings captured on the walls of the hundreds if not thousands of painted caves now abandoned art work of Cappadocia.  The cave paintings while much has been destroyed have preserved a lot of history and messages through the images.  I find it quite inspiring and very peaceful.  In some of the churches that you pay to see one with no cameras allowed.  I could easily spend an hour staring at the ceiling and unweaving the thoughts in the heads of these early christians.  Their faith, their perspectivies, their stories.  Much of the tradition has been preserved, but a lot has been lost as well.  Lots of contemplation are required to understand not just the story, but the perceptions of the artist.

Cave homeMary the mother of Jesus

This photo is not a direct photo, but actually a photo of what I saw, but photographed from a book at the gift shop, or a post card.  You can see how much color is still in the images.   The color alone is quite the story as the paint was made from pigeon poo.

My travels took me to Goreme, in central Turkey.  These natural occuring ferry chimneys are amazing.  I’ve only been in a few places in the world where they have these, Utah’s Goblin Valley, and Bryce Canyon, but what those places don’t have are the primitive Christian churches and the underground cities.  The Tuff left from the volcanic ash turned rock helped provide a substance that was very easy to carve, but also very strong, like a more dense pumice.

Goreme Open Air Museum Entrance

There are multiple locations in Cappadocia where you can find these cave churches.  First the largest collection in a small area is the Goreme Open Air Museum.  There are lots of great cave hotels in Goreme.  I recommend staying in a cave at least one night.  It’s a unique experience and it’s quite affordable.

Unfortunately nearly all of the churches would not allow photography or video cameras at the Open air musuem.  You could take pictures outside, but definitely not as  compelling.

high cave churchThe Snake Church

There were a few select churches that they allowed photography in.  The names of the churches come from the art work inside.  Apple church, snake church, etc…

Christian Column Inside the cave church

While these may look impressive, the reality is these were pretty bare.

On a walk through the various churches you’d mostly get directed at the various figures and stories from the bible, but it was stories like the animal below that represents paganism that really caught my interest.  I was interested in the explanations of what was different and how they lived and what they believed.  Like can you believe that most of the well preserved cave paintings have the eyes of the people carved out.

Pagans

I was told the local muslim people felt threatened and the eyes alone could convert.  So you have these scary pictures where the eyes are carved out.

Greek Influece on Caves in Turkey The Hive of Caves

Not only were the churches carved into the stone, the people as well lived in caves in stone where archways could be fancied up.  On the left you have the homes of displaced Greeks in Turkey.  Most of them moved back to Greece.

Next we travel to the Ihlara Valley were over a dozen caves were turned into churches.  One of the most amazing hikes… Combines peaceful walk along a stream with basalt canyon walls like the snake river valley in Idaho or, and pillars of the Giants Causeway in Ireland.

Ihlara Valley Map

As you can see by the little yellow dots along the slides of the river in the Ihlara valley, for miles along the river, caves were turned into places of worship.  If you were simply walking along the river, you would have really No idea this was happening.  It’s Fantastic!!

Ihlara valley cave churchesPainted Cave

Do these caves above look like they might contain this… image to the right.

Beautiful art still remains on the walls.  Much has been destroyed or defaced.  Eyes of the saints in the pictures are scratched out.  One guide told us that the people were worried about how the beautiful icononic art might convert them.  The watching eyes were just too powerful.  So much so that for much of what you see there are few eyes you’ll find.

The Three Magi

Below the three magi or wisemen and their gifts for the birth of the savior minus their eyes.  If you look near the hat you can see names in Greek.  It looks like the names of the magi were added afterward. The shape of their hats is interesting.  It brings a historical understanding.  Studying this brings much more understanding of the early 6th century church.

Mary on a donkey

Mary on the Donkey… Did you know the reference to Mary riding a donkey is actually not found in the bible, but in apocryphal writings in the text the Infancy Gospel of James?  This may be one of the earliest paintings that exists showing Mary on a Donkey.

The dome in pigeon poo

It is very incredible to think of the condition that these paintings were made.  These were painted many many years prior to the crusades, and the spread of the ottoman empire.  These were made at time when the Christians were hiding in caves.  The paint was made from pigeon droppings.  To think about that part of it it’s really very remarkable much remains at all.

Open Air churchesGoreme

When in Goreme and surrounding you’ll find that you need at least 2 to 3 days to simply race through everything.  4 days to a week will allow you to take a slower pace to really enjoy the valleys and take more in.  The tours are very inexpensive, and they are organized into the blue tour, the red tour and so on, and they really are packed with places to see and visit.  One morning you need to do the balloon ride for the adventuresome.  If you are thinking about the balloon, don’t wait till the last day because they are frequently cancelled due to weather conditions.

Goreme from above

View of Goreme from the top of the hills.

Abandoned fairy homes

The Fairy chimneys… turned home and now abandoned. A honeycomb of mystery and intrigue.

The Messiah scratched out

The Messiah, with a scratched out face…

Selime Cathedral

For more adventure… On one end of the Ihlara valley is the Selime Cathedral.  Walking to simply get to this Cathedral makes you feel like you’re rock climbing.  It isn’t for little old ladies or old men.  This requires a little bit of skill to navigate across the rocks, through tunnels and a bit of scrambling…

Selime Cathedral

But the payoff is big.  Huge rooms with archways and columns still remain while much of the artwork is destroyed and soot covers the ceilings.

Selime Cathedral

If you look closely you can still see remains, of what was once majestic.

Cappadocia Central Turkey Valleys and the all seeing eye

If there was any doubt that this valley wasn’t backed with mystery, intrigue and wonder… I hope a few of these picture have opened your mind.  Goreme and Cappadocia still remains one of my favorite destinations and the my appreciation for the early church and their cave dwelling days has shaped what we think of even as a catheral or church.  We have much to share in appreciation for these devoted follower of central Turkey.

Fiji – An Experiment in “No Reservations” Cultural Island Travel

The interior of Fiji

 

I bought a cheap flight from New Zealand on my way back to the U.S.  On a discount Jet Star flight, I was in Fiji for a couple of days for less than a difference of somewhere between $100-200 USD.  It was great.  I loved Fiji.  The people were amazing!  The adventures I had in Fiji could not have been planned, and no guide could have planned some thing as authentic as what we experienced.  This post is the first night and I’ll separate the other experience in another post.  Fiji was just too amazing for one post.  Michael condensed his into one post on Fiji titled “Kava Shots and Holi Wars”, and I borrowed a couple of his great photos.  This post on our experience with the native Melanesian people and my second post on the hindustanis and celebrating “holi” with them.

When some people think Fiji, they think of beaches in paradise.  I was thinking… Natives in grass skirts, a real tribal experience that I couldn’t find in the Caribbean.  I knew I wouldn’t have my wife and kids with me, and hanging out on the beach was the furthest thing from my mind.  I wanted to go local and seek out a real adventure.

On the flight to Fiji I asked a flight attendant where I could find the most native village and one where I could live with the locals.  I was imagining huts or sleeping on mats or hanging hammock.  I was given the name of a place somewhere deep in the island.  When we went to pick up the rental car, they said we’d want a 4×4 to get there.  Ultimately we picked up a 4×4 and headed out into the woods.  Before we headed out, we wanted to make sure we had a gift for the village to cover any expenses we might incur to the village.

It was long before we started out on dirt roads, and deeper and deeper crossing rivers, and getting strange looks.  Miles and miles deeper we drove.  The stares started getting longer and polite “Boolah!” we would get.  We’d respond, “Boolah!” and smile big.  Then someone stopped us… where are you going?  We explained we were going deep into the heart of the island to this very native village.  He told us that was impossible and that we should turn around.  We let him know we weren’t in a hurry and were enjoying the drive.  He gave us a warning that the river had washed out the road.  It got more and more challenging as we drove along and finally we met our match.  The road was too much, so we turned around.  You’ve heard about Anthony Bourdain and his No Reservations show. On this day we were definitely traveling without reservations.  We were both up for adventure.  I was traveling with my friend Michael Noel of SharingTheGlobe.com and I said.  Tonight I want to sleep in a village, and we agreed even if we were on someone’s floor.  We were open to adventure.  As we drove back the way we came, we saw a big tent and a local gathering.  We slowed down to avoid the crowd walking along the street and gathered around the tent.

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Young men were pounding long metal pipes in little wooden canisters.  They’d lift and pound, twist lift and pound. We slowed and said “Boolah!”… What’s going on?  He replied, it was a birthday party for his 1 year old daughter.  The entire village was gathered for the party.  The women were inside the home, and the men underneath the tent.  He invited us to join them.  We had heard about the need to bring cava roots as a gift, so we were prepared.  I was so excited to join this exciting moment and the family was happy to have some foreign guests of honor.  We were brought to the head of the tent to the elders of the village and sat down on mats.

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The village chief elder asked us a few questions, but invited us to participate in a ceremonial “Kava” drink.  Kava is such an important part of the culture.  It is only consumed sitting with your legs crossed, with no legs and foot pointing to the sides.  The kasava root is pounded then put in a sock and water is added to create the drink.  The first person claps their hands twice, and from a large bowl a half coconut is dipped in and then the person who is presented the cava claps twice, then drinks the cava, after he’s finished he throws any remainder over his shoulder and hands the coconut back.  Both hands are used at all time.  It felt like a handshake, trust, confidence, and an opportunity to make friends all at once.

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The tent was filled with happiness and order.  Those with the most age were at the front of the tent and as a rite of passage, you had to be twenty or twenty one to enter the tent.  Those at the back of the tent had paid their dues in the pounding of the cava and only those who had come of age could drink the cava.

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In our search for a unique cultural experience we were given one.  We had arrived late to the party and the men had already eaten.  We were invited to eat with the women and children who as custom would have it, eat after the men.

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They accepted us and we had some interesting looks, but had some great local hand cooked fish and rice. The children thought we were interesting or funny looking.  Either way, we made friends with the kids, and eventually re-emerged back out toward the tent.  A couple of younger guys from the back of the tent approached us and asked us about our story.  Why we were here, asking if we were having a good time… Of course we were.  We were offered more kava.  At this point I was getting a little nervous.  I wasn’t sure if I was going to have strange dreams or what affect this kava might have.  I knew there wasn’t alcohol in it, but beyond that I didn’t know much about it.  I explained to the young man that I shouldn’t have too much.  He asked why.  I said for religious reasons.  He asked what religion.  I said. LDS.  He said.  “No way.”  I said, “yes way.  I am a Mormon.”  He replied…  That was impossible.  He stopped and said. I am a Mormon.  That house over there.  They are Mormon.  Many in this tent are Mormons.  I wasn’t sure if he understood me, or what, but then I remembered as we had turned off the road, I had seen an LDS church.  He said the prophet had told them that they could drink kava, but they should not drink too much.  Having spent the last 3 hours involved in the ceremony with the elders I could see the cultural importance, and for a young man this was a huge privilege for him to be under the tent and mingling with the men of the village.  He asked us where we were staying and I told him we were hoping to find a place to stay.  A while later he told us he had talked to his mother and we could stay with them.  Perfect!  We would be able to stay in the village and even if on the floor we had a real local experience rather than staying in some cheap hotel.  He wanted to stay at the party as late as possible, so I asked him about what time he’d be leaving.  He didn’t know, but somewhere around 1am.  We agreed that would be fine.  He ended up going back to the party after we settled down for the night.  The 1 year old’s party lasted till at least 2 or 3 am.  Wildest 1 year old party I’ve ever heard of…  The people celebrate together.  It’s a very communal society.

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Music got more lively and ultimately it turned to dance, and we were invited to boogy.  After learning a few local moves, we were invited by some locals to start dancing.  We had some more kava.  Danced some more.  Had more kava, met more locals and spent the evening having a blast with the local Vatuvu villagers. Fiji was amazing and we were experiencing it raw.  No guides, not paid group.  Our payment, a gift of Kasava root, smiles and friendship.

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That night I would sleep on my new friend’s couch, and feel what it was like to be a villager.  Mission accomplished!

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Empires and Castles of Ethiopia

Ethiopian Castle

When you think of Ethiopia you think of impoverished people where 3/4ths of the country live on less than $1 a day.  When I first came across the fact that not only there were castles Ethiopia, but a vast Kingdom that rivals the Kingdoms of Europe and was larger than the greatest kingdoms of the world, I was blown away.  Ethiopia has quickly become one of my favorite places in Africa.  In fact what I’d discover was wild stories of King Solomon of Jerusalem of the famous Temple of Solomon and his many wife’s including the Queen Sheba whose  kingdom is believed to have been in modern Ethiopia and Yemen.  The more Kebra Nagast I read the more I was fascinated and even becoming convinced of the connection between Ethiopia and the old Judean kingdom.  In Ethiopia you can’t separate religion and these vast kingdoms.  As a Kingdom there are strong Judean traditions and Christian influences and is the first Christian Kingdom.  If you read the Ethiopian scriptures you’ll find the marriage and first born son of Solomon and the connection to Sheba and her son Menelik.

Aksumite Empire and Kingdom

The Aksumite Obelisks marked the reign of the old kingdoms.  One of them was taken by Italy and then returned in 2005.  Imagine if England and France returned the obelisks from Egypt?  I know the Paris one was for a trade for a clock that never really worked.

The Empire of Aksum at its height extended across most of present-day Eritrea, Ethiopia, Western Yemen, southern Saudi Arabia and Sudan. The capital city of the empire was Aksum, now in northern Ethiopia.  It was known as one of the four great powers of his time along with Persia, Rome, and China.

Right: St. Mary’s church which contains the Arc of the Covenant behind the curtain in the Holy of Holies according to the Ethiopian Coptic church.  They wouldn’t let us go back there. Instead they wanted to show us their old colorful Holy Book or Bible.

The Aksum empire achieved prominence by the 1st century AD, and was a major player in the commerce between the Roman Empire and Ancient India.

Aksum’s capital is found in northern Ethiopia in modern Axum which is now smaller than it once was. The Kingdom used the name “Ethiopia” as early as the 4th century. It is also the alleged resting place of the Ark of the Covenant and the purported home of the Queen of Sheba.

Abyssinia (Ethiopian) Empire – Solomonic Dynasty

The Solomonic Dynamisty claim direct male line descent from the old Axumite royal house. Menelik II, and later his daughter Zewditu, claim direct male descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.  The importance of this is very significant for Rastafarians and much of Ethopia.  The last emperor of Ethiopia born Tafari Makonnen Woldemikael, known as Haile Selassie I was Emperor of Ethopia from 1930 to 1974. He was the heir to a dynasty that traced its origins by tradition from King Solomon and Queen Makeda, Empress of Axum known in the Abrahamic tradition as the Queen of Sheba.

I took this picture of Emperor Fasilides (1603-1667) Castle in Gondar, which was one of the best preserved of the many castles in a small area in the city of Gondar.

Here Paul and I were messing around amongst the castles.

Above: Emperor Yohannes I Castle in Gondar – 1667-1682

We were a little surprised to find a heard of donkeys running down the road.  The castles are on the other side of the rock wall.

These cool Banyan roots remind me of Cambodia.

Below: Coffee Ceremony.  Coffee is originated in Ethiopia.  If you love coffee I highly recommend the personal roasted coffee bean ceremonial experience.  I’m not much for coffee being LDS, but my friend Paul must have tried it a half dozen times and loved every one of them.

Fasiladas’ bath – created by Fasilidas back in the 16h century.  It’s a beautiful place where they perform baptisms.

Timket – Once a year the Ethiopian church celebrates the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan river on January 19 (or 20 on Leap Year), corresponding to the 10th day of Terr following the Ethiopian calendar.

Below: This blue house appears made of dung and this fabulous blue color.

Below the ancient kingdom of Yeha even older than Axum as the capital for Ethiopia and has the oldest building in Ethiopia dated to somewhere around 700 BC.  We were definitely out of place in this little village.  If you really want to see people who rarely see outsiders this is a great place.

The Monastery of Debre Damo is on a flat-topped mountain with and contains a 6th century monastery available only to men. While on top of this plateau you can see hills and landscape in Sudan and Eritrea.  It’s a real treat for multiple reasons. The only entry is via a rope made of animal hides that’s dropped.  You tie one it around you and start climbing up the other animal rope.  It’s an incredible experience climbing up 100 foot cliff straight up.

If you visit Axum Ethiopia it’s a short 2-3 hours through an amazing countryside ride.  Yeha is less than a half hour away.  We were able to see much of Axum in the morning and make it out to the amazing unique monastery.

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

Incredible India Series: The World Famous Temple of Rats

Temple of the Rats

Our world is evolved enough people should NOT be dying of hunger any longer. End of story.  I don’t think we should put up with it any more.  If a handful of priests can keep alive 20,000 rats in the lap of luxury. We surely can apply some of these principles to help sustain communities all over the world.  In my next post I’ll tell you what we can learn from the rat temple, a place that’s one of my favorite because it’s sooo different from the culture I’m use to.  I spent a couple of weeks across India and Nepal with a couple of friends… Majid from Iran and Michael Noel from San Francisco.

While traveling in India I came across a peculiar place unique to any other on the planet.  It was the Karni Mata Temple known as the Rat Temple in Rajisthan province near Bikiner.

Karni Mata the world famous Rat Temple

The world famous shrine of Karni Mata can be found in the town of Deshnoke 30 km south from Bikaner on the road to Jodhpur. Karni Mata is worshiped as an incarnation of Goddess Durga.  This temple is famous for rats which can be seen everywhere in the temple.  The rats are treated as sacred and given protection in the temple.  Thousands of people travel to the temple by foot. The temple draws Hindu visitors from across the country hoping for blessings, as well as curious tourists from around the world. Inside, you are required to remove your shoes, it’s good luck to have rats run across your feet as this brings good luck.  It’s also good luck to find a white rat.  Apparently among the 20,000 rats there are 4 or 5 white rats.  We spent a while listening to the children who were telling us stories of where the white rat had hid in a wall and we waited around hoping to catch a glimpse.  The temple is an ancient building from the 1500’s built in beautiful white marble and has a silver door complete with images of rats that was donated by a rich ruler nearby.

The priests of the temple are protectors of the rats.  They bless the pilgrims and give them a special sacrament.  This sacramental food that is a mix of rat saliva and other stuff that comes out very yellow called prasadam, a candy like food for the rats. Eating food or drinking water that previously has been sampled by a rat is considered to be a supreme blessing.

Why Rats?  In India as well as in the west Rats aren’t that special.  In fact they are seen as animals that carry disease, but these rats are special.  For generations they have been taken care of in this prime state.

The story of the rat temple is quite unique.  I’ll put the story in my own words and then let you discover a number of online variations of the story.  The story goes that Karni Matta was the reincarnate of the goddess Durga.  One of her children died and she tried to bring it back to life only to be told by Death that had cursed her and her child was reincarnated as a rat and all of her clan would be reincarnated as rats.  Other versions I’ve found say she made a deal to have her clan come back to life as rats and those rats would come back as humans.  Either way, you don’t want to hurt or harass the rats here, as they are very special, but these are relatives of a reincarnate goddess.

There are a few amazing things about the Rat Temple:

  1. Look for the white rat definitely a fun and rewarding activity
  2. Apparently of the 20,000 rats it’s difficult to locate any baby or younger rats. In our trip I think we saw some juveniles, but for the most part they all did look about the same size and age.
  3. No one apparently has ever gotten sick from the rats.
  4. Careful where you lean, there may be a rat on the ledge or railing. Killing a rat would result in you needing to replace it with a solid gold or silver one.

While at the temple I saw the largest mixing bowls in my life.  These huge huge bowls are set over a fire and the priest cooks the food for the rats in mass quantities.  They are feeding 20,000 rats and for a handful of priests it saves a lot of time to work with industrial sized feeding bowl.  In my next post I’ll share a social biz idea to solve world hunger based on this amazing place.  I refer to the idea as social mush.

Read more about this very unique temple on National Geographic’s Rats Rule at India Temple

Ancient Cliff Monasteries of Meteora Greece

Greek Cliff Monasteries

I was inspired by a photo on Bing.  I saw what looked like huge granite rocks with old buildings hanging off the sides.  As I did research I found these monasteries from 500+ years ago that continue to exist in inhospitable places.  I was sure they were designed for protection back in the day, but I had to see these wonders. They seemed so incredible.  These are protected as UNESCO world heritage sites.

Wikipedia article on Meteoragives us a little info on the age… The cave of Theopetra, Kalambaka, radiocarbon evidence for 50,000 years.  In the 9th century, a group of hermit monks moved up to the ancient pinnacles.  The oldest monasteries are from the 13-14th century.

I planned out my trip.  I’d fly into the closest airport I could find, Thessaloniki and assume that I could either rent a car or pay someone to take me.  (I later found Volos is 2 hours, so it’s a little closer but wasn’t as accessible.) There is actually a train (3 hours) leaving every 2 hours.   I was in a big rush and ended up paying a taxi driver and while I can’t say it worked out perfectly because his estimate for drive time was off by an hour and I missed my flight, but I will say it was worth it to see these amazing cliff monasteries of Meteora Greece.  The Wiki travel page explains there are a total of 24 monasteries atop rock pinnacles.

The drive was actually about 3 hours outside of Thessaloniki.  It isn’t well marked, and this did cause some confusion for my driver who knew they existed and had visited the cliff monasteries, but didn’t remember exactly how to get there.

Driving through the Olympus mountains themselves was quite surreal.  Next time I’ll definitely rent a car and spend way more time in this much quieter part of Greece.  Athens was nice, but Northern Greece and the Thessaly and Macedonian region is so beautiful and peaceful.  I won’t get into the dispute of FYOM Macedonia which I blogged about previously.

Looking out at Meteora and Kalampaka from above one of the cliff monasteries.

Above: View of the city Meteora from atop one of the cliffs.  There are a huge variety of different monasteries.  One of the most famous is Agias Varvaras Rousanou.  At first I thought there was only one with just different angles.

Driving you’ll see the following monasteries:

  • Agiou Nikolaou monastery(St. Nickolas Anapausas)
  • Agias Varvaras Rousanou monastery(St. Barbara)
  • Varlaam monastery
  • Megalou Meteorou monastery(Great Meteoron)
  • Agias Triados monastery(Holy Trinity)
  • Agiou Stefanou monastery (St. Stephen, the only monastery for women)

You can visit the monasteries for a small fee around 2 euros each.  The hours are limited, so be sure to check open hours.

Night view of the Acropolis in Athens with my traveling friend Paul Swider.

Old Watch Tower on the Bay in Thessaloniki

As a Christian I find visiting the city that the Apostle Paul wrote about in the Bible. The book Thessalonians is based on a letter to the people living here. That’s cool stuff. I recommend Ephesus in Turkey as well for similar reasons, and may be a good city to add on to this trip.

The Greek Orthodox churches in the cities, while still cool looking definitely don’t have the same feel as those in the cliffs.

Greek Orthodox Church in Thessaloniki