Swayambhunath – A Special Place in Kathmandu

Kathmandu is an amazing city.  Colorful and busy.  Yet, somehow spirituality seems to permeate it.  Among the many places that back that impression is the Swayambhunath site – also just known as the monkey site.  I don’t know that it is technically a temple but it is certainly an important Buddhist religious site.  Claims about when it was first established range from the 6th century A.D. to the 3rd B.C.!  Let’s settle on “it’s old.”

Beauty everywhere

The site’s shrines and other structures dot the hillside and are packed at the hilltop.  I wish I had had a guide to make sure I understood the meaning of the different types of structures and figures sculpted in them.  Here is a glimpse of some of the sights on the site.Swayambhunath, Kathmandu, Katmandu, Nepal, monkey, temple, stoupa, Buddhist, travel, Samsung GalaxySwayambhunath, Kathmandu, Katmandu, Nepal, monkey, temple, stoupa, Buddhist, travel, Samsung Galaxy Swayambhunath, Kathmandu, Katmandu, Nepal, monkey, temple, stoupa, Buddhist, travel, Samsung GalaxySwayambhunath, Kathmandu, Katmandu, Nepal, monkey, temple, stoupa, Buddhist, travel, Samsung Galaxy Swayambhunath, Kathmandu, Katmandu, Nepal, monkey, temple, stoupa, Buddhist, travel, Samsung Galaxy

Swayambhunath, Kathmandu, Katmandu, Nepal, monkey, temple, stoupa, Buddhist, travel, Samsung Galaxy

Prayer wheels

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The earthquake changed it

The many shrines and temple-like structures included more than you can see today.  Sadly, the earthquake of April 2015 knocked down one of the two towers, and severely damaged the other one and many other structures.  Yet, it seems many survived OK which is a blessing at such an important site.

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The surviving tower

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The base of the collapsed tower

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Damage from the earthquake

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Serious crack under the large stoupa with prayer wheels around it

Eye gotta stupa for you…

More impressive than anything else on the site is the stupa with the painted eyes on it.  They follow you around…  They are Buddha’s eyes and eyebrows…  It is said it is over 1,500 years old though it has been renovated many times in its long life.

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The eyes on the golden tower in the stoupa

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See? They are watching you…

Monkeys R Us

But, the way I heard of this place for the first time was because of the monkeys.  The many monkeys that reside on the place.  Big and small, they are everywhere.  Yet, much as they must be used to people, they were not climbing over folks.  They were very well-behaved!

Swayambhunath, Kathmandu, Katmandu, Nepal, monkey, temple, stoupa, Buddhist, travel, Samsung Galaxy

Baby monkeys – a fertile place!

Swayambhunath, Kathmandu, Katmandu, Nepal, monkey, temple, stoupa, Buddhist, travel, Samsung Galaxy

Curious monkeys

Getting to view Kathmandu from up high

The site is located on a tall hill that offers great views of Kathmandu.  The main approach is a rather long and steep set of steps on the east side of the hill.  LOOOONG! (365 steps to be more precise) But, unbeknownst to me, our driver was taking us to a point that maybe was 2/3 of the way around the back so our climb was not as severe.  Now, now, don’t be poking fun.  I had just spent 5 days hiking on the Everest Base Camp trail so saving steps was relief of sorts…

Swayambhunath, Kathmandu, Katmandu, Nepal, monkey, temple, stoupa, Buddhist, travel, Samsung Galaxy

Sweeping view of Kathmandu – and a passing bird!

I must say that though at first visiting a place full of monkeys did not thrill me, the place’s charm and the faith it represents was captivating.   I enjoyed spending time there and would recommend taking the time to connect with this bit of Kathmandu!







Building a School in Kumari, Nepal

Prior to my trek in the Himalayas along the route to Everest Base Camp, I spent 3 days in the village of Kumari, Nepal thanks to Trekking for Kids‘ work to support this village.  The village, as many places in Nepal, was severely impacted by the April 2015 earthquake that struck the country.

The recently-built medical clinic was quite damaged and the school that served about 400 children was pretty much destroyed.

Nepal, earthquake, damage, Kumari, medical clinic, Nuwakot

Most damaged part of the clinic

Trekking for Kids had planned a trip to Nepal (it has been going there for years to bring hope to orphaned kids via its treks) and chose to direct the funds raised by us trekkers towards the re-construction of the school.  The school certainly will provide a better environment for the kids to receive education but it will also encourage parents to send the kids to school which helps reduce the risk that human trafficking poses for these children.

Kumari, Shree Bikash, school, Nuwakot, Nepal, Trekking for Kids, voluntourism, service, Samsung Galaxy

Makeshifts structures -and outdoor spaces- serve as temporary classrooms

Kumari, Shree Bikash, school, Nuwakot, Nepal, Trekking for Kids, voluntourism, service, Samsung Galaxy

Teacher holding class outdoor

Our stay in Kumari

We left Kathmandu on our way to Kumari, a village development center in the Nuwakot district.  Though it seems to be about 30 miles from Kathmandu, as the eagle flies, it took us about 3.5 hours.  The first 1.5 hrs were on a paved road that we left after a quick stop at a roadside kiosk.  From then on, we took a dirt and bumpy road that in the rainy season is impassable, driving past terraced hills and lots of green.  Occasionally we would pass small rural homes and saw a little bit of life in the countryside.

In Kumari, we stayed in the medical clinic compound, a very large space that was fenced and gated.  The medical clinic laid near the far end and had been badly damaged by the April 2015 quake.  Though damaged, a couple of spaces were still in use for examinations and to house the pharmacy.  Behind the clinic, there was a small structure housing the women’s and the men’s restrooms (2 stalls each) plus one basic shower.  Along the sides of the compound were tents used by our group and others supporting the construction work and our visit.  I imagine the tents were donated post-quake to help with temporary housing for locals but I think I heard tents were not very successful in Nepal as they were too foreign for regular folks.  Not sure if our tents were indeed originally intended for that temporary shelter but they look pretty clean and unused.  I will have to say that they were a little larger than the small two-people tents I have used before so I was glad for the extra “comfort.”

Sukman, medical clinic, polyclinic, Kumari, Nuwakot, Nepal, photo, Samsung Galaxy

The Sukman Memorial Polyclinic, our tents to the right

Staying in the compound was far better than I had been expected.  The grounds are well kept, the indoor restroom was a pleasant surprise, and though I only used it one of the 3 days, it was nice to take a shower after a day’s hard work.  The compound also had a kitchen and outdoor (covered) seating area so all our meals were there.  I tended to wake up very early and enjoyed a cup of tea while soaking in the quiet and sunrise.  It was a little cold at night but not frigid.  We were a 5-minute walk to the work site (the school grounds) so all-in-all, I was pleased with the setup they had prepared to host us, not having too much time traveling to- and from- the work site so we could maximize time at the site.

A grand Kumari welcome!

When our small caravan was approaching the medical compound, we noticed a lot of people were there waiting for us.  The more we walked, the more it seemed the entire district had come to welcome us.  We left our stuff in the cars (someone would take care of that) and after an initial greeting which included music, we were taken up a dirt road towards the school grounds which were located above the medical compound.

Nepal, Kumari, Nuwakot, voluntourism, trekking

Walking from the clinic to the school grounds

As we made the final turn up the dirt road that passes the school grounds, we noticed schoolchildren were lined up waiting for us – loaded with long necklaces made from orange marigolds (like Hawaiian leis).  As we walked along the kids, teachers, and others, these “leis” were placed on our necks.  They must have spent long days making these (the flowers were all fresh)!!  Some of us ended with a heavy yoke of these leis around our necks but it was a very joyful welcome – much appreciated!

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Schoolchildren awaiting us with the marigold necklaces!

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Some of us sporting the massive and heavy leis

After we got to the covered space that had been set up for the welcome ceremony, we took our seats and then all the children and other locals stood behind us.  At the end of the ceremony, 3 hours later or so, I was very impressed the locals stayed the entire time, in the sun.  There were some local figures present but maybe the draw was the two emcees (MCs) who I take had come from Kathmandu and were well-known.  The ceremony entailed many speeches in Nepali or in English as well as some dances/songs by the local kids.  I soaked it all in though, at that point, none of us had eaten anything since breakfast and I, for one, was hungry and trying hard not to pull something out of my day pack when so many in the crowd were probably as hungry as I was.Mukari, Nuwakot, Nepal, trekking for kids, photo, school children, Samsung Galaxy, travel, voluntourism Mukari, Nuwakot, Nepal, trekking for kids, photo, Samsung Galaxy, travel, voluntourismMukari, Nuwakot, Nepal, trekking for kids, photo, school children, Samsung Galaxy, travel, voluntourism

Mukari, Nuwakot, Nepal, trekking for kids, photo, school children, Samsung Galaxy, travel, voluntourism

School administrators, civic organizers, the MCs and the trekkers

Sweat equity

Trekkers like me commit to fundraise $1,000 towards the projects chosen for the specific trek.  The projects funded are normally anchored on capital improvements or new infrastructure.  In this Nepal trek, the school was the main project our funds would support.  I am proud to say that my group of trekkers and I raised over $33,000, much higher than the minimum we each committed to raise (thanks to any of you who donated!).  This allowed us to also fund the construction of new indoor restroom facilities at the school, something the children had never had before:  one restroom with several stalls for the girls, and the same for the boys.  When I go in these treks, I often leave pondering the things I have taken for granted all my life… and I am humbled at the blessings in my life.

Shree Bikash, school, Kumari, Nuwakot, Nepal, construction

Plans for the new school

One of the three days was focused on us pitching in in the construction efforts.  Trekking for Kids’ approach is to ensure local labor performs the projects and local materials are used.  But trekkers get to get down and dirty lending a hand.  In these projects, trekkers got to help both with preparing the foundation for two of the new school buildings as well as with pouring the new roof for the restroom building.

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Foundation trenches completed, next step was to lay rocks at the bottom

I worked in the crew that helped dig the trenches for the school buildings’ foundations and then “harvested” rocks from the debris field from the former school building from the side of the hill and tossed them (via human chain) up to fill the bottom layer of the trenches.  While we were happy to help, it was clear the locals who worked on the project and the local teen youth group that was volunteering to help were much more effective and fast than we were…  It was certainly an honor to be able to humble ourselves for such a good cause.

Other trekkers helped prep the restroom roof before the concrete was poured by framing the area and cutting and setting up the rebar.  At the point the concrete was being mixed and poured, the locals took over.  It was interesting to watch their methods!

Rebar, Nepal, Kumari, school, Trekking for Kids, voluntourism, volunteer, travel

Cutting rebar

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Roof being readied for the concrete pouring

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Roof being poured with the sewage tank visible in the lower part of the photo

Finally, our trekkers helped finish the digging of the “sewage tank” that had already been started with the use of mechanical equipment.  Hard work indeed!

And just having fun

Working on the projects is something trekkers enjoy doing but trekkers always enjoy the opportunity to be with the kids.  The kids made us smile with the great welcome they gave us so I certainly enjoyed giving back in this way to them.  We got to be with the kids during school hours and afterwards, including one afternoon dedicated to fun and games that went late.  The kids thoroughly enjoyed the mini-carnival games, the arts and crafts, and a good early dinner!

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One of our trekkers, a former teacher, spends time in the classroom

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The kids played games in the afternoon

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Kids enjoying an early dinner

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At the end of the day, kids line up for parting gifts!

As for me

The treks themselves, of course, helped keep me challenged and appreciating my own life’s blessings.  But, in the end, I would not be doing these treks if it were not for the opportunity to make a difference, however small, in the lives of children around the world.  It is faces like these that keep me prioritizing my travel budget and vacation time for doing these treks (at the expense of doing more with my own friends and family), that keep me “pestering” friends and family for donations to fund the projects, and that keep me accepting conditions during my treks that are less than what I’d prefer during my vacations.  Take a look, can you blame me?Kumari, Nuwakot, Nepal, kid, child, school, service, volunteer, Samsung Galaxy, photo, travel Kumari, Nuwakot, Nepal, kid, child, school, service, volunteer, Samsung Galaxy, photo, travel Kumari, Nuwakot, Nepal, kid, child, school, service, volunteer, Samsung Galaxy, photo, travel

Check out Trekking for Kids and pass the word about this great organization to others via word of mouth and social media!

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A beautiful Nepali sunset over our camp

How Does One Pack for A Trek in Nepal?

In about 6 days, I leave on a trip to Nepal.  Once again, I will be trekking with Trekking for Kids to improve the lives of children around the world.  This is a special trip for several reasons, one of which is the devastation from the April 2015 earthquake calls for the world’s support for this developing nation.  It has been long enough where our presence will not be a hindrance to the important efforts that happen immediately post-earthquake.  Our aim is to fundraise the monies needed to re-build the school in the remote village of Kumari, pretty much destroyed during the earthquake and still not recovered.  The school serves about 400 children and we got news this week that the building permit and plans were approved by the local authorities.  If you would like to contribute, please visit my fundraising page and donate, nothing too small (or too big!).  After we visit Kumari and spend a few days with the kids and doing some projects, we will depart to do a 5-day hike that, weather permitting, will allow me to see Mt. Everest in person.  I will not be going to Everest Base Camp as it takes an extra week that I cannot afford with work but that’s OK.  I will get to spend time with some folks I have trekked before and I am looking forward to that!

So the point of the post was to share with you how it looks to pack for this type of trek with multiple elements to it.  This is my spare bedroom, all loaded with my stuff.  Now, to figure out how to fit it in the orange bag on the left and the hiking backpack that will serve as my carry-on piece.  Wish us luck!

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Boarding Pass Stories: Christchurch, New Zealand

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The destination, the when(s), and the reason(s)

After spending two weeks there, I flew from Melbourne, Australia to New Zealand.  My entry point:  the very livable and lovely town of Christchurch.  This was in 2009, so before the large earthquake that did so much damage to this beautiful town.  I got to see it before it suffered such destruction.

The airline

Air New Zealand.  The carrier that I chose to fly me from Los Angeles to Australia/New Zealand.  I landed in Auckland where I connected with a flight to Sydney.  After spending two weeks in Australia, I returned to NZ to explore it.

What fascinated me about this experience

Christchurch was a place I could actually live in.  The neighborhoods, the city center – it all fit my likes.  I found good restaurants and a charming bed and breakfast.  It was a great launching point too to explore the south island of New Zealand and I sure hope to return some day!

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Indoors at the main cathedral that, unfortunately, had to be condemned after the damage it suffered during the earthquake

I sure hope to return to Christchurch and explore it and the area more!

A Propos of Earthquakes

As I have written elsewhere in this blog, I missed the Chile earthquake of Feb 2010 by a day and a half.  How lucky of me!   Our company did not allow us to return for 3 weeks and in those 3 weeks the more powerful aftershocks took place so I also missed those mercifully since I was staying usually at floor 20 and above at the Santiago Marriott during my stay in Santiago…  I did experience a few smaller aftershocks most of which I was too busy/carried away with work to realize they were taking place except people would point it out.

This week’s Virginia quake, therefore, took me back to Chile and even my childhood in Puerto Rico where we did experience quakes like the one that just struck Virginia this past week.  I knew what to do, I knew to worry but not panic, etc.  But what I had forgotten was the rumble of the building as it shook – it is an eerie sound and many a person in Chile told me that was the worst part of the very long earthquake in February, more than the shaking itself.

Here are some of my pix from the damage in Santiago…  Worth saying that these are only from the Centro.  I did not see or capture damage outside of that area (I wasn’t hunting for it, most of these were near work!).  Also, it is worth noting that these buildings are old and built before serious earthquake-safety codes were developed and implemented.  Newer structures fared better.

A Year On… A Final Trip to Chile

It will almost be a year to the day since I traveled to Chile for the first time in 18 yrs.  I was expecting an infrequent trip there in the year to follow due to work but a couple of months in, the game changed and I got to practically be based in Santiago for most of 2010.  The surprise was pleasant for the most part, except I had not planned to live far from home for so long, even if I did get to come home for long weekends at least twice every month.  Now, I have one more trip down to Chile of a few weeks before this chapter of my life closes…

It is important to note that I had wanted to stay in Chile back then in 1991.  I enjoyed life there SO much.  But without too much on my resume yet, being “too green”, and no easy way to figure things out (no Internet!), I just went back to the U.S. when the assignment ended.

Seeing Santiago after 18 years was a strange experience.  I was able to recognize places from my life those 3 months around 1990-91 (my apt building, work, Brannigan’s on Calle Suecia, the McDs by Parque Arauco where I used to go eat after playing racquetball, and the old parts of town among others).  But, of course, 18 yrs in a good economic climate bring about lots of change.  I recall back then a skyline littered with cranes of high rises being built.  Well, by now, I am happy to report they finished the buildings… and then some!  Sanhattan did not exist when I was there – not in its current form, at least.  The area around Parque Arauco and Parque Arauco itself have been developed beyond recognition.  I got to re-connect with friends from those days there and while their lives of course had changed, the friends were pretty much as I remembered them (physically and personality-wise).

I got to sample numerous excellent restaurants from a list built up by recommendations from a couple of choice people who clearly know food.  I have hit just about every recommendation except for some.  By now, with 3 weeks left in my assignment, I am more interested in eating at my favorite places than discovering new ones.  Tiramisu and Cuero Vaca (http://www.cuerovaca.cl/) rank up there in my book (good eats!).  I will be eating there again for sure!   [Check out this review of Tiramisu at the NYT:  http://tinyurl.com/2fcbum7]

Of course, I got to be in Chile on or around key events in its national history:  the earthquake of February 27, the national elections that made history, the trapped miners, the bicentennial (bicentenario), and the national soccer team making it to the 2nd round in the World Cup.  Wow, what timing, don’t you agree??

I got to sample the Atacama desert, hop over the Andes to Mendoza, and explore more of Valparaíso.  Hopefully, before I return, I will also get to see Patagonia and the key sights down there – Torres del Paine, the Magellan Straits by Punta Arenas, the Perito Moreno glacier, and a few other sights.  Places left to see or see again include Valdivia, Puerto Montt, Puerto Varas and neighboring towns along the area, and the lakes crossing of the Andes to reach Bariloche.  Had work stretched into January, I would have been able to add them to my “itinerary”.  But with work wrapping up mid-December, I only had time for one destination before coming home for Christmas.  So I think I chose well with the trip to Tierra del Fuego.

Now, I need to focus on the hardest week of work in the whole year, then stabilize things before I move on.  I am thankful God granted me the opportunity to return to a land that I love and to have made it for a long stint so that I got to internalize it all.  Now, I am ready to leave Chile behind knowing I can always come “home” but ready to focus on my life in my real home…

My Return to Santiago Post-Earthquake

I left Santiago the Thursday before the incredible events of that Saturday morning in late February 2010.  As I woke up that Saturday morning at home, I looked at my Blackberry and I had a news alert about an 8.8 earthquake in Chile.  My heart stopped.  I had just left there.  I have friends and co-workers there.  Immediately I turned on the TV to hear about what had happened.  Was Santiago heavily impacted?  Were my friends OK?  I also set up shop with my laptop getting Chilean local TV (thank you Internet).  Between the US-based news network and the local Chilean one on my PC, I had a good amount of info coming in.  I sat like that for the majority of that Saturday taking every bit of info in.  (I was exhausted and over-stimulated by the end of the day.)

I slowly gathered that Santiago had mostly been spared, though heavily shaken.  I learned about the destruction in Concepción, Talcahuano and other places that I have not visited.  I heard about the tsunami and I heard the news clip of the Chilean President saying “there was no tsunami concerns” (this info she was given, she didn’t make it up).  Eventually, I finally began to hear from friends and co-workers.  Everyone seemed to be fine.  But, in a way, they were not.  Most seemed very shaken (figuratively).  Aftershocks continued to happen, some of them didn’t feel safe in the buildings they were at, water and power cuts were going on, etc.

My ex-pat co-workers finally were gotten out of the country a few days later via a chartered flight to Buenos Aires.  The stories of the shaking they experienced that night were pretty incredible and scary.  The shaking lasted anywhere between 3 and 4 minutes.  Some could not stay standing up during it.  The worst, I am told, was the noise while the shaking was happening…

So, after some weeks of travel freeze, we were allowed to go back to Chile by our company.  I wanted to go and see everyone but I was not sure how I would feel when aftershocks occurred.  We landed in Santiago and, as expected, the jetway was not operable so we deplaned the old-fashioned way and were taken by bus to the immigration area.  You could see the damage to the false ceiling and things like that.  Once we cleared customs, we had to walk to a tent area on the parking lot to get to the taxi area.  The taxi area had been moved partly due to the collapse of a pedestrian bridge in the departures area right above where taxis normally wait on line for arrivals.

Driving into the city to go to the hotel, I did not notice damage.  Once at the hotel, some damage was still in evidence in the atrium glass ceiling.  Upon closer inspection I could see small cracks in different parts of the building.  But, it did not seem there had been much damage (I should say, by the time I arrived).  Once I went towards the city center, where the offices are, the damage was more visible as that is an older part of town that probably predates building codes that kept many Chileans alive through the earthquake and the many subsequent aftershocks.  A lot of the plaster outside of buildings had cracked or fallen, including in our own building.  In some cases, walls bulged or cracked.  At work, the cracks were quite evident all through the building.  Saddest of all was seeing the damage to the church on the Plaza Yungay near our favorite “sanguïchería” (Chilean-style sandwich sandwich shop).  The cracks are everywhere and especially near the base of the belltower.  It is not a magnificent church, just an old local church that I find charming.

Quake Damage near Work

In the 2 weeks I spent there I felt one aftershock, though there had been a few.  They were all small so probably the reason I didn’t feel them – but the locals did.  Invariably at different moments, people would ask “did you feel it?”  And I would go “feel what?”  “La réplica” (the aftershock).  The only one I felt (a reasonable 4.5) I felt only because a co-worker I was with said “can you feel it?  it is shaking” as he pointed as his computer flat-screen monitor.  I told him “that’s because I am writing on your desk and moving it some”.  He then pointed to the window blinds, surely not impacted by my writing movements, and yes, they were moving.  It lasted like 30 seconds and was not much of anything but it was a reminder, once more, of the recent events.  I realized that the locals having gone through that incredible earthquake have now a heightened sensitivity that I, not having been there, do not have.  The stories of the weeks after the earthquake were about the constant aftershocks, many of them not trivial, like the one I felt.  I remember being in calls with folks in Chile in the 3 weeks after the quake and at random times, they would go “hold on, it is shaking”.  Some times they would resume talking, sometimes they would say, “we are leaving the room, it is a strong one”.

I left Chile yesterday.  Firstly, I hope Chile is spared more quakes other than the small aftershocks.  Actually, I hope they are spared even those.  They have had enough.  Secondly, I hope Chileans recognize that their seriousness about code and having responsible governments has paid off in saved lives, in lower damage and repairs needed, and it mental peace about their safety.  Thirdly, I am glad I did not go through the 8.8 as I don’t know how I would have handled it.  And finally, I can’t wait to get back to such an awesome place and hope that those who have not been to Chile and explored its beauty still try do so and don’t let fear of tremors keep them from going…

Arriving in the Southern Island of Middle Earth: Christchurch, New Zealand

There are so many awesome places in New Zealand but I feel Christchurch, though not one of the top 2 cities in NZ, may be the best place to hit first on a trip over (Dunedin is not far behind!).

The arrival

I arrived in Christchurch on the eastern coast of the southern island of New Zealand (where Lord of the Rings was filmed; the lands in the movie were called “Middle Earth” for those who may not be familiar with the movie!).  From the plane we flew over the southern Alps, as they are unofficially called.   In this picture, we pass over the highest peaks and you can even see a glacier coming down.  This is the view you want to see ahead of coming to NZ!

Southern Alps, New Zealand, Christchurch, glacier, nature

Glacier flowing to lower right corner of pic as I fly over the Southern Alps in New Zealand

It was around 230 PM and we were delayed getting off the plane because a passenger had flu-like symptoms.  Nice.  The health person from the airport had to board the plane and do some kind of test on the passenger before any of us could get off.  I could not see exactly what he was doing but after a few minutes of whatever, we were allowed to get off the plane.  The airport claims to be the “top carbon neutral airport company in the southern hemisphere” which I found amusing for a couple of reasons, one of which is the recurrent theme in Australia and NZ of claims about a place being the “—-est” (tallest, biggest, cleanest, etc.) in the “southern hemisphere”.  Considering how little of the world is in the southern hemisphere, these claims almost seem too easy 🙂  but, heck, someone’s got to make the claim!

Besides being carbon neutral, the airport is nice and small and it was very easy to just go to the bus stop and catch bus 29 intown.  It dropped me off very close to my bed and breakfast but apparently I signaled “stop” one street too early so I walked an extra block.  No worries, extra exercise.  The streets were very pleasant and had the air of a place where people knew each other, where people felt safe, and where the pace was not too fast and not too slow – a great place to get to know NZ and, especially, the south island.

A great place to stay in Christchurch

The Orari Bed and Breakfast was in an old house and was very nice.  At 6 PM they cracked open some wine for the guests so I knew I had ample time to walk around before sunset (around 430 PM) and be back to shower, unpack and get some wine.  The room was frigid when I got there though they had turned on the standing heating unit probably just before I arrived.  I thought I would freeze that night but the standing units (there was another one) and the heating blanket worked really well.  In fact, all too well, I was burning up in the middle of the night and had to turn off the heating blanket!  It was the first time I had used one…  I was very glad with my choice of place to stay due to a great location next to an art museum but otherwise not in the middle of things, yet a short walk away from places to eat, the city center, etc.  Oh, and the staff is great!  It definitely made me feel Christchurch and NZ was putting its best foot forward to welcome me.

The Garden City

The town of Christchurch is called the Garden City and I would agree with that although it was the beginning of winter.  The “suburbs” were very nice but also the areas closer to the city center.  The city center itself was manageable and with some key sights to check out.

Christchurch, New Zealand, cathedral, earthquake, southern island, architecture, Canon EOS Rebel

The ill-fated cathedral, fatally damaged in the earthquake and now being rebuilt in Christchurch

Christchurch cathedral New Zealand earthquake southern island

Interior of the cathedral of Christchurch before it was destroyed

Christchurch square plaza chess New Zealand

A friendly game of chess in Christchurch’s main square

architecture center of Christchurch New Zealand, Canon EOS Rebel

Beautiful architecture in the center of Christchurch

New Regent street in Christchurch before earthquake New Zealand Canon EOS Rebel

New Regent St. in Christchurch – seriously damaged during the earthquake

I strolled down Oxford Terrace by the small river that cuts through the town as there were a lot of restaurants/cafes/pubs along the street and I wanted to scope out where I would have dinner later that night.  I settled for a place called Sticky Fingers where I later got to enjoy a very nice Sauvignon Blanc wine from Marlborough called Cloudy Bay.  The place has a nice smart and modern ambiance.  The seating areas was very comfy and next to but separate enough from the bar area.  The food was good but I would not say stellar.  Other restaurants in the strip that caught my attention were Ferment and Liquidity.

My visit in Christchurch was short and I am going back at the end of my tour of the southern island so I should get to sample another restaurant and sip on the wine at Orari.  The tempo of the city and its charm served as a great welcome mat for this first time visitor to the magical place that is New Zealand.

(Pictures taken with Canon EOS Rebel)

The Little-Known Ancash Region of Perú

Sometimes things lead you to the unexpected.  And the unexpected turns out to be a pleasant – very pleasant – surprise.  As part of my work trip to Perú, I went to the Ancash region to do field visits to witness our work and meet the locals with whom my organization worked.  Besides the incredible insights I have gained from a work standpoint, I also gained a sense of how diverse Perú – and the world – are!

A wild and crazy bus ride

To get to Huaraz, the capital of the Ancash region, an 8 hr bus ride is needed (unless you happen upon the rare flight to the landing strip close to Huaraz).  The bus ride starts with magnificent scenery driving through an ocean-side desert north of Lima.  Beautiful yet different than any ocean-side drive I have done, except maybe going from Santiago, Chile to La Serena.
Lma Huaraz road travel Pacific adventure bus

Great road as I leave Lima along the Pacific coast of Peru

The road turns inland and the route crosses some mountain ranges that separate Huaraz from the ocean.  Crossing these mountains, of course, yields nice views and also some mildly scary moments due to the drop-offs from the road down to the abysses (and the sometimes lacking guard rails on the road).  Add to that a crazy style of driving buses at high speeds on mountain roads and the experience is most complete!   Check this very short clip of what the bus ride is like:

Huaraz, the capital of the Ancash region

Huaraz is a provincial capital not in the top cities of Perú.  I had never heard of it before.  But it sits privileged being located in the middle of Ancash.  The town is not large but it is not a village.  It has a large enough expanse and great views of the neighboring mountains, including Mt. Huascarán.

Huaraz, Peru, Ancash, mountain, vista, view

View of the town of Huaraz

Mt. Huascarán in Ancash (not far from Huaraz) one of the tallest mountains in the hemisphere

Mt. Huascarán in Ancash (not far from Huaraz) one of the tallest mountains in the hemisphere

Being an “Expert”

Unlike prior trips, in Huaraz, the focus of my work visits mercifully was not about entertaining the visitor, which can easily become how the local staff plans it, but about letting me see firsthand the work of our staff.   This was nice for a change, though I still got a lot of curious looks especially from children. I visited various government offices throughout the week I was in Huaraz. One of these was the regional president’s lieutenant’s office who was sort of excited about an American being there and sent me to the regional tourism director to share “my opinions” with her. They were very keen on hearing an outsider’s view of the possibilities here for tourism.  I found myself –again- being asked for my opinion on something I am not an expert at, but –again- I felt compelled to talk as if. I told them the truth which is that the land in the Ancash region (where Huaraz is) is quite spectacular and any traveler would enjoy the natural beauty of the area.

Diversity in the Natural Beauty of Perú

The Ancash region is different than the regions around Puno in that the latter are the “altiplano”, the high altitude plains where the lands seems to not end. Here, it is somewhat lush but not overly so; lots of mountains, canyons, rivers with lots of mini-rapids, and mountains whose sides are a vertical sheet of rock (and these are couple of thousand feet high from the altitude at which I am at). Switzerland, for example, is not as impressive in the landscape when compared to this region.

Bathing Habits for You and Me

I visited a community (called Buenos Aires) where sewage lines were being installed by the town and households were being helped to build a real bathroom not just a latrine.  The engineer, who was supporting the homeowners in deciding what to build and where, asked the man of a particular house how often they showered and he said maybe every other day.  Sounded reasonable, since they don’t have indoor showers, and since it is cold weather due to the altitude (and, hence, cold water).  Then another man piped up and said “well, maybe once a week”.  After some silence, another man owned up “well, maybe not even that frequently”.  Yes, that was indeed diversity in bathing habits from what I do…

Buenos Aires, Ancash, Peru, village, clouds, cloudy sky, development

The main plaza of the town of Buenos Aires under threatening skies

Witnessing a Land of Tragedy

On my one day off, I got to visit the Laguna Llanganuco which is really two lagoons nested in a narrow canyon between the massive Mt. Huascaran and its neighbor peak. The setting between those two peaks is narrow yet magnificent. As we approached, my driver explained to me that in the 1970 earthquake (that killed half the population in Huaraz), a chunk of the mountain broke off. You can actually see this – it is a massive area; hard to gauge from below but easily 500 ft. tall. Well, that chunk would have normally fallen into a canyon towards the base of the mountain. This chunk was not only rock but part of the glacier covering the mountain at the time. It came town with such strength that it fell in the canyon and bounced OUT of the canyon wall and downhill straight into the town on Yungay. This town was obliterated and today the part where the town was is fenced in into a park called Campo Santo (Holy Ground). So many died and so complete was the destruction that the area was made into a burial ground and memorial. The town was rebuilt a couple of kilometers away. It is a very sad piece of history in the region. The mountain stands there as a reminder and the driver told me geologists say that there is a significant crack in the part of the peak that remains and that, at some point, that will come down too…

Laguna Llanganuco, Ancash region of Peru, colorful, lavender, green, photo, travel, Canon EOS Rebel

Around the laguna. Love the colors

Huascaran, Peru, Huaraz, Ancash, Peru, mountain, Andes, travel. photo, Canon EOS Rebel

Laguna Llanganuco, next to Mt. Huascarán

Odds and ends

Here are some observations/experiences:

–      I found a tiny restaurant near the hotel and work run by a Belgian and his Peruvian wife. I ate most lunches and dinners there; he is an incredible chef and everything is fresh (he makes the pasta, sausages, pies, flavored pisco drinks, etc.).  There is a cast of regulars (to which I belonged temporarily) and it was really nice to go somewhere during this type of trip and be known and get to “catch up” with folks. The owners are very generous and friendly and I sampled most of the flavored piscos with my favorite being the “ginger vanilla” [good drinks] one.

–      I have noticed in Puno and Huaraz how much construction there is going on. You see a house that is finished with a second story going up. That is, you see the re-bar going up on the second story.  Or you see half walls on the second story. I noted to someone how impressive this construction boom is. I was informed that actually many houses are like that for a long time. Owners do bits and pieces of the expansion as the money comes in and it can take a couple of years before they get to finish.

–      I went to the corn and chirimoya (fruit) festival in Huari where I was offered the local, special occasion delicacy of the town: roasted cat. No worries, I drew my line at guinea pig!

–      I didn’t try cat but I did try at my friend’s restaurant a drink made of fermented potato. It is one of the grossest-smelling things I have decided to taste. I closed up my nose and drank. It actually was OK – as long as you didn’t breathe when the glass was within a foot of your nose. The aftertaste wasn’t particularly pleasant but the upside is that it is loaded with penicillin so it probably killed all the bacteria gathered during the day.

–      As a reminder of the geologically active zone I am in, every now and then on a road you see a sign that proudly announces “Geological Fault 100m Ahead“.  Pleasant thought as you drive on the cliffside roads around here!  Usually the road is interrupted when you cross these faults. Makes sense.

–      On our way out of town there is a guarded complex with walls that are between 2 and 3 stories to protect the complex and with guard houses at each corner of the complex. A sign in front of it prohibits parking within X meters from the main gate. The third time passing by it, I ventured asking if it was a jail or a military base. I was told no. It is a site where the local breweries store their beer. Talk about national assets and security!  I love it.

–      One of my favorites scenes and scents in the countryside are the eucalyptus trees that cover many hillsides. They add a grayish green color to very green landscapes and when you drive close enough to them the smell is just wonderful. I wonder if I can grow them in Atlanta. It can be very cold and hot here so, maybe??

–      Coffee here is served as an extract (liquid). You are then to add hot water to it. Well, no one had told me and I had written off coffee here as pretty bad until I learned… It is actually quite good.

–      The hotel is one of the few buildings in the town with an elevator. The rooftop terrace has an incredible view of Mt. Huascarán (one of the tallest mountains in the western hemisphere) and its neighbors.  I love going in the morning and at dusk to see the sights.

–      Internet connectivity is available just about everywhere except the most remote mountain communities. There are Internet cafes just about every corner (I do not exaggerate). I also have had Blackberry access even outside of the towns. Sometimes I have been surprised how far away from towns I can be and still have access.

–      I stand by the comments about how great the people are in Perú. Time and again, I get more and more evidence of this.

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