Week 240 November 3, 2018

This week started with Loren caregiving his Mom as per his usual weekly schedule, and with me running usual weekly errands, but I was shocked this week with seeing Santa Claus chocolate candy being stocked on shelves at the supermarket. Then I saw a huge Christmas tree and holiday decorations at the Mall. THEN I saw holiday cards for sale at the Post Office! The topper that evening was seeing a Disney holiday show advertisement during a Warrior’s game. But, if all that were not enough, the next day I saw a Christmas tree on a neighbor’s porch. This was all before Halloween… Too much!


We heard this week from our dear friends from Shanghai who we had met in Nepal while they were on their honeymoon. This year they completed their French Way of El Camino de Santiago de Compostella – you can see her holding their Certificates in the photo below. And, lucky them, they continued on past Santiago to the Atlantic Coast for the Finesterra Camino – the ‘End of the World’ at Cape Fisterra.

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On Tuesday I taught three Bikram Yoga classes in the same day. I think that is my first time doing so and I will do so again next week. I have had a regular routine of teaching the 6am and 7:45am classes each week on Tuesdays. It was nice this week to also teach the 6:30pm, to see different students and to offer them a different teacher at that time. Then it was time for the holiday of the week, Halloween. We started our day with having two long put-off important meetings with a tax accountant and an attorney,

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and that evening, the 13 year old boy who is also staying long term at our AirBnB wore an FBI costume this year, and he wrote up a citation for Loren which included such creative violations as: Failure to wear a costume, Insufficient laughing, and Inappropriate dance moves! 

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Our friend and his Mom then went off to their church for a Halloween party, while Loren and I went off Trick or Treating at a friends’ daughter’s home where our friends were helping hand out candy. We took them the treat of a bottle of bubbly to celebrate our one friend’s retirement, memorably on the day of Halloween. She was duly surprised and touched, and we were delighted to help commemorate the special day.

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Loren and I have now traveled to Lodi, California for our first of their 22nd annual Sand Hill Crane Festivals. We had been enamored of the crane preserves and foundations we had previously stopped to see on our journeying in Nebraska and Wisconsin. These had reminded us of cranes that we had seen in the wild in Florida, Africa and Bhutan. Now this weekend festival offers us an opportunity to witness an actual migration of Sand Hill Cranes in person, which we understand is on par with the wondrous Wildebeest migration, which we had also witnessed when we were in Africa. 

On our drive to arrive here yesterday, we saw a flock of about a dozen Sand Hill Cranes with their black tipped huge wingspan fly right over our car. We saw a few larger flocks in the distance as we continued onward. We then stopped along the way for a little break and an easy hike at Big Break, where we saw the vast California Delta up close.

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As we continued our walk, we found that the regional park included several placards with information about the delta’s history and its environs. We even saw a little girl catch her first fish with the help of her grandparents while we were here. 

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The park also hosts a wonderful diorama map laid out, showing the delta, Mount Diablo with its wide range, and the major central valley cities. There is a cute video on the park’s website with a 7 year old boy showing off the full schematic – you can visit it at: https://youtu.be/EyCfw0XH_tM

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Loren and I then arrived yesterday evening where we are staying for a couple of nights at an AirBnB on a ranch, complete with at least a dozen horses, a herd of sheep, three dogs and the rancher couple who created this place 40 years ago. Our accommodation is in their private Bunk House, a perfect setting for a respite before the festival activities start up later this afternoon.

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I will always remember how when Loren pointed out some construction cranes that we saw in Italy, our friends there said they are called Grus, like the bird. It was only then that I connected that our construction cranes were likely also named for the enormous bird! I am excited to see how many of the other species of bird on this checklist we might encounter on the three tours that we have signed up for over today and tomorrow. 


Week 198 January 13, 2018

Kuzu zangpo la! Hello! in Dzongkha, the language of Bhutan. The beginning of this week found us still in the “Land of the Thunder Dragon,” as it is known for that weather phenomenon’s regularity during the wet monsoon. Loren and I learned so much from our young Guide during our short visit – about the culture, geography and history of the country, about Buddhism and local wildlife, and, we benefitted from and perhaps even contributed to GNH – their Gross National Happiness initiative. To begin with, Bhutan is home to more than 2,500 monasteries. We visited only a few of them in the four of Bhutan’s twenty districts that we visited: Paro, Thimphu, Punakha and Wangdue. Many of the monasteries are located in former dzongs – fortresses, originally used for defense by the army, that today house both administrative offices and temples.


We learned that the Bhutanese people are steeped in cultural traditions, one where buildings and public sites are often decorated with beautiful pictures or crafted symbols of The Eight Lucky Signs, which include for example the Buddhist symbol of the Wheel of Dharma. Another is to erect fields of white prayer banners to honor the souls of departed loved ones. Similarly, many of the houses are protected with painted designs of the four strongest guardians: ferocious Tigers, imaginary Snow Lions, an imaginary Garuda bird, and, the formidable Dragon. Loren and I learned how the three most revered figures in Bhutan include Buddha, Guru Rinpoche who is originally from modern-day Pakistan and who brought Buddhism to Bhutan in the 7th century, and, Zhabdrung, affectionately known as “Beard Man,” who united the country in the 17th century.

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Another cultural belief in Punakha, where two rivers meet, is that the faster moving – more aggressive – Phochu, is labeled male, and the deeper, wider, slower moving Mochu, is considered female. Past their joining point, they are called the Combined Male-Female river. All over the country there is a penchant for the ancient craft of archery, but now played with high tech equipment in the larger cities. A friend suggested that we must see a tournament, which our Guide helped us to do. In seeing the “two football fields” length of the target being hit, we watched the opposing team members enact the tradition of calmly singing and dancing briefly, to honor the achievement. 

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In many of the temples we were taught about the pleasant- to fearsome-faces of heroes and guardian gods. For example we learned those of the Directions, where North holds the lucky sign of victory, East is portrayed a heavenly musician, South bears a sword, and West lifts up a stupa. On temple walls and even painted on trucks, we found the Norbu image, representing imaginary jewels to be sought from chhu, or water. Our guide also pointed out images of the Gods of Compassion, Wisdom, and Power, of the scenes of a very old man to be prayed to for Longevity, and, of the Wheel of Life, a 6 realm mandala held by the Lord of Death to represent certain aspects of life to avoid and to strive for, that we encountered in each of the various monasteries.

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One pictorial representation we often encountered too is of the parable taught by Buddha of the Elephant, Monkey, Hare, Bird and a fruit tree. The one version explains how the four animals pleasantly worked out who was eldest to teach respect for elders, another is on learning to work together. Loren and I also had the chance to have a Monk give us an astrological reading, where he affirmed aspects of our individual lives, and pronounced the strength and stability of our relationship.


We also learned of the more than 110 years of monarchy in Bhutan, and of how the third of the five Kings is considered the Father of Modern Bhutan. He died at just 46 years of age in 1972, when the 4th King-to-be was only 17 years old. He was their youngest King crowned at age 19. It was prophesied that he would have 4 wives, and it was his second of the four who gave birth to the next heir to the throne. When the 4th King was in his fifties in 2006 he turned the throne over to the 5th and current King, who is now 37 and has a son. We saw numerous venues proudly display photos and images of the lineage of the monarchy, and especially of the current king and his wife. One fellow American who we met over dinner suggested that a benevolent King is the best form of government.


In our travel further east in the country, we saw firsthand how every winter the Bhutanese must reconstruct their narrow cliffside roads, because every summer harsh monsoon rains cause destructive landslides and rockslides in the Himalayan mountains. Our driver was adept at navigating the boulders that blocked many parts of the unpaved roads, and around the heavy equipment working to create new pavement. 

What we also found is that Bhutan is socially and ecologically minded. There is much gender equality visible and citizens receive free healthcare. The #1 industry is the export of hydroelectricity, with tourism and export of agricultural produce #2 and #3 respectively. In 2008 the country voted in their constitution a mandate to retain 60% of their land as forested. They have 72% forestation currently. We also noticed much clever signage along hiking trails, reminders for keeping the nature free of trash,

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and, along the more traveled highways between the large cities of Thimpu and Paro, such encouraging and inspiring reminders as:

     Alert today: Alive tomorrow…
     Drive slower: Live longer… 

     Let’s go green to get: Our globe clean.

Perhaps my favorite part of the week was seeing wildlife. While hiking we saw monkeys in trees and Samar deer near a monastery. While driving we came across several yak in a remote meadow. One morning we saw the national bird, the Raven, then we visited the Black-Necked Crane Visitor Center to learn about these unique “Heavenly Birds.” Then we went hiking to see them in the Phobjikha Valley where lucky for us they are overwintering from their home in Tibet. Near the “Combined Male-Female” river, we saw Ruddy Shelduck who reminded me of Egyptian Geese that we had seen in southeast Africa. And, while hiking to Tiger’s Nest, we were treated to a flock of scavenging Yellow Billed Blue Magpie. We were not so fortunate to see the endangered White-Belly Heron nor the rare national animal, the Takin… two reasons to someday return to Bhutan.

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We ended our tour with a hike up to Taktsang, more famously known as Tiger’s Nest, and visually familiar to me from cliffside temple photography. It clings to rocky outcroppings far above Paro’s forested valley. While hiking I repeated the Bhutanese word that sounds phonetically like go-leh-beh, which said twice means slowly, slowly, which I needed to go on the steep uphill stretches. The temple was originally built in the late 1600’s, a tribute to Guru who meditated for extended time here. He is fabled to have subdued a hostile tiger demon by transforming into a formidable persona, riding his consort in the form of a tigress to the cave dwelling where the demon lived. Previously I have found fierce images such as of Guru unpleasant to behold. Now, I so appreciate what these dangerous looking figures represent – protectors of the people from destructive forces of evil.


Thank you for following along again on our Journey! Back in our cheerful Room 405 in Kathmandu, we send you a last Bhutanese sentiment, for now:

Tashi delek (said tah-shee de-lay), meaning Best wishes!


Week 197 January 6, 2018

Happy 2018! And, Happy Little Christmas, January 6! To commemorate this new year, I want to share words from around the worldfor Cheers! Well, words or phrases that mean Cheers, Happy New Year, or To Your Health, and only some from some of the parts of the world where Loren and I have visited, or words that we have learned or discovered  from other travelers, and, mostly in my own form of phonetic spelling:

Agyshegette, Doormoi, Fe Sehetak, Geevehlee, Goang Shi Fah Tzai, Gong Hay Fat Choy, Na Zdrowie, Narok, Nastarovia, Nossa, Nostrovi, Prost, Salute, Sante, Sawl E Neu Mubabrak, Slainte, Stiniyamas… however you may say it, we send our Best Wishes!

We spent New Year’s Eve in Patan Durbar Square, the second historic Palace that we have seen of what was once Nepal’s three kingdoms. The first one we saw in Bhaktapur last week, and we hope to visit the third in Kathmandu before we leave Nepal.  It is sad how, just as was true in Bhaktapur, Patan’s Durbar Square suffered a great amount of damage during the 2015 earthquake. The reconstruction is painstaking and ongoing. 

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We also celebrated a lovely New Year’s Eve! We visited a new friend and her husband who live in Patan. They are originally from the Netherlands, and we had met her with another “Dutchie” on our Poonhill trek. They served us a delicious dinner, and with lively conversations the evening simply slipped by! When Loren and I returned to our Thamel neighborhood by taxi it was just before midnight, and the streets were as “crazy” as our hotel owner had warned. We eventually and safely squeezed and pushed our way through the streets full of throngs of revelers… On New Year’s day Loren and I enjoyed another peaceful and leisurely dinner from the special holiday menu at the downstairs restaurant of our hotel, served by one of the always friendly and helpful waitstaff.

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One travel book claimed that treks are the most popular activity in Nepal because of the “gasp-worthy views of the Himalayas.” Gasp-worthy is true to our experiences, and now we have had two more opportunities to gasp. Loren had told me while we were in Nargakot on our second trek, that with our hotel owner’s help his Christmas gift to me would be a helicopter ride to see Mount Everest up close. Wow! However, it did not seem possible as other than our generous hotel owner who would join us, there were no other people interested to share the cost. We were considering other options, maybe a shorter flight, so kept putting it off, until… This week, another couple who were also interested showed up, and voila! We took the “heli” ride on short notice.

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It was a phenomenal time! Neither Loren nor I had ridden in a helicopter before, and, to see Everest this way was priceless. The pilot showed us that his thermometer read -40C as we neared the summit. Our trip included breakfast on the outdoor patio at nearby Hotel Everest View. There it is – the tallest mountain on the planet above sea level just above Loren in the photo, with the wind stirred clouds blowing off to her right. The pilot landed twice, so both Loren and I had an opportunity to sit in the front seat.

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Not only did we share a most exciting experience together, we so enjoyed this other couple that we also had dinner together that evening. Loren and I have been so privileged to meet some very special people on our Journey. It is always wonderful when the connection is as strong as some have turned out to be. 

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Loren had also insisted that since we are so close, we must visit Bhutan before we leave this part of the world which we had arranged. Our flight from Kathmandu to Paro the next day afforded us an opportunity to see Mount Everest from yet another vantage point, and we are most grateful for this additional view via another mode of travel. Now, today is our second of seven days of visiting in Bhutan. We were welcomed by our friendly guide and driver with gifts of traditional white scarves. They are wearing the traditional knee high gho outfits for men. Women wear traditional full length kira skirts. 

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The Kingdom of Bhutan requires tourists to be guided, not to travel on their own. It is a landlocked country of 700,000 people in the Himalaya, bordered to the north by Tibet autonomous region of China, and, otherwise, surrounded by India. It is a country where 87% of the population practice Buddhism. We have already driven from Paro where the airport is, to the capital city, Thimpu, which has a population of 100,000. So far we have seen a 14th century iron chain link footbridge, and an impressive Memorial Chorten or Stupa; we have hiked up to two different monasteries – one where we had our recently purchased prayer flags blessed, and, seen the enormous, newly erected statue of Buddha.

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It is much colder in Bhutan than in Kathmandu – as we were forewarned, and, this afternoon a chill wind kicked up and has increased in intensity as the day has worn on. We are so very grateful for the roof over our heads and for the heater in our hotel room.