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Ka Hana Pono: A magical school that lets kids be kids

Ka Hana Pono School, Haleiwa, Oahu, Hawaii

As our 6-month chapter in Hawaii is coming to an end, I keep reflecting on the special time we’ve had and how incredibly lucky we were to find Ka Hana Pono, the local preschool that our kids attended over the past half year. First, the school choice was a bit of a wildcard as there are only two full-time preschools in the area and second, that we were able to get spots for both Bastiaan and Lea. I remember when I was googling preschools in Haleiwa and stumbled onto Ka Hana Pono’s website. The photos immediately captivated me – the lush green outdoor garden and playground. Memories of my outdoor adventures as a kid in Austria came to mind. And, they taught the kids about healthy living and eating? Sold! After a brief virtual Zoom tour by Jason aka “Uncle Bison”, the owner and one of the main teachers, I was even more convinced of this choice. This looked like a fantastic place for two young children to spend 6 months. Ka Hana Pono it was.

The meaning of the name itself made me ponder life and curious about how their day-to-day would unfold: “‘Ka Hana Pono’ is a pragmatic set of tools for understanding and making the practice of Pono (= being at one with everything) a part of your daily life. These tools are consolidated into a reference work that combines both the philosophy of personal greatness, with the cognitive skills necessary for maintaining it – a practical guide for mastering the art of living in Pono.” (Source: https://huna-hana.tripod.com). Sounds like a school I could benefit from going to myself 🙂

So what did Bastiaan’s and Lea’s experience look like in practice?

  1. Connection to nature + pure play. The kids spent the majority of their time outdoors, barefoot, exploring, learning from and playing with nature. They would come home with mud on their feet, their shorts dirty to the point that even the strongest detergent would fail miserably. They had climbed, planted, harvested, swung, jumped, painted (messily), danced and sung. It made me smile to see them at pick up time – their hair dusty or sweaty, exhilarated and tired.
  2. Learning by doing. Bastiaan would have never touched bugs back in California. Now he knows that bok choy stalks regrow if you trim them and put them back in shallow water, he picks and eats berries from local bushes and names (and touches!) all sorts of bugs. The teachers read to the kids and tell them stories grounded in core values like respect and love. While the curriculum (on purpose) isn’t “academic-first” the kids learn core concepts like counting, colors and shapes while going about their gardening activities or games.
  3. Team work and collaboration – teachers as the guides. The teachers guide the kids on activities but let the kids take the lead. The kids learn how to work together, play with each other, and work through conflict. The teachers feel like the wise elder friends that aren’t too overpowering or hierarchical. They make the kids feel seen and heard – each one of them them acknowledged for who they uniquely are. Also, turns out Uncle Bison is a singer-song writer who plays in a ska band. He teaches the kids to play Ukulele and whips out his guitar to sing and dance with the kids during the day.

I must admit that I had a brief moment of hesitation early on about the mainly play-based approach. This brief doubt evaporated quickly as I saw Lea and Bastiaan develop and grow during their time here. Bastiaan in particular became more confident and outgoing. The ability to fully express himself through play and physical activity (he’s a very physical guy) helped him come out of his shell. The close and loving relationship with the teachers led to a huge jump in his social and verbal skills. And our Lea is thriving all around – our little social butterfly could let her full spirit shine and share her light with the many other wonderful children that are now her friends.

Thank you Ka Hana Pono for the special environment you create every day – for the love, dedication, creativity and freedom you provide. We feel incredibly grateful that Bastiaan and Lea could spend this chapter of their lives with you – their time at Ka Hana Pono enabled them to connect with and let their individual lights shine more brightly.

5

Thailand – Full Moon Parties, Scuba Diving and More

IMG_20141008_173651 While traveling around the world is an absolute dream, one of the tougher things about the journey is that we are constantly on the move. Every 2-3 days having to unpack and repack our suitcases and getting on the road takes its toll. While we had originally planned to use the month of October for a more comprehensive tour of South-East Asia (e.g., Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos), we ended up deciding to stick to one place, Thailand, and take it more slowly. Christian had been to Thailand a couple of times before and described it as a laid back beach paradise. I was sold! But before paradise could begin, we had to take a long journey, flying from Bhutan to Bangkok, followed by the overnight train down South to Chumphon and then finally several hours on the ferry, before we arrived at our destination: Koh Tao.

Koh Tao is a small little island off the east coast of Thailand. The reason we chose Koh Tao is to get our PADI Scuba Diving certificate. Turns out the island graduates the greatest number of scuba divers in the world. I liked the place the minute we set foot on it. Barely more than a stretch of beach, the island is laid back enough to feel you’re in a remote place but with enough beach bars and restaurants to explore for a week. Our little hut right on the beach made us feel like in paradise. Amenities were limited (no AC, simple room with cold water shower) but the direct beach access and sunset views were worth the trade-off.

Before starting our scuba diving course, however, we set out for one more adventure. The legendary “Full Moon Party” was happening the next night on the neighboring island Koh Pha Ngan. It’s a gigantic, all-night beach party with several DJs. The event attracts several thousand people every month. We were curious to check it out even though somewhat skeptical based on what we had heard. Lots of young travelers that can go a bit overboard. But, we were already in Thailand. Plus, since our wedding was on the night of a full moon, it was technically our “3-month moon wedding anniversary”. So why not give it a try. The journey there was enjoyable in itself. A nice boat trip and long stroll along the beach in Koh Pha Ngan, followed by sunset beers at a cute beach bar.

We were ready for the party! First, we got ourselves a “bucket”. Literally, a flask of alcohol mixed with a soft drink in a bucket. Admittedly, not my favorite cocktail. Second, some hula hooping on the beach. Really fun with the music, especially in this unique setting. Christian and I got to know people from around the world and danced until the morning hours. Despite our original intentions to make it through the whole night without sleeping, we couldn’t resist to get a cheap room for a 4-hour nap before taking the morning ferry back to Koh Tao. I guess we are getting old 🙂 Overall it was beautiful to dance on the beach under the full moon, however, it’s more of a college-party scene and the music was a bit too mainstream for my taste. I had secretly hoped for a sliver of Tomorrowland DJ tunes. But, all in all, a worthwhile experience.

Back on Koh Tao, we were ready to go diving! The course took 4 days. Christian and I found ourselves “back in school”: a mix of (entertaining, 80s style) videos, some theory and then the actual dives. Anita, a teacher-turned-dive instructor from the UK, was our dive teacher. Very experienced, great instructor but also really fun to spend time with. Besides getting the actual certificate, I realized how special it felt to become more integrated into Koh Tao’s dive community. Our daily schedule gave us plenty of opportunity to socialize and hear people’s life stories: early morning 5:15am wake-up calls to hit the best dive sites before others, a Tuk Tuk to the pier, boat trip to the first dive site, back to town, out on the water again for more dives in the afternoon, back to the dive shop at around 5pm, followed by evening beers with the New Way Diving crew. The dive masters/instructors all had their own, interesting stories to tell. From different countries, ages, and backgrounds they came to Koh Tao for various reasons: to escape from the stressful corporate world in “the West” in search for a more balanced life, to finally pursue a long-had passion after retiring or to just have fun for a year or two before starting a career. I was contemplating if I could see myself as a dive teacher. Having a boat as an office, spending all day long in flip-flops in the sun and teaching people a fun sport does sound tempting. Yet, I don’t think it’s my life’s calling. Although I must say that both Christian and I got a true appreciation for the sport itself and the technical capabilities needed. On our last dive, having mastered the basics, we were able to immerse ourselves more into the actual experience. The weightless floating. The serenity of the underwater world. The incredibly diverse nature with all its unique shapes and creatures. Like a wonderland. I can see why people can’t stop exploring this magical place. Christian and I are hooked! A new sport we both enjoy.

After our lovely stay on Koh Tao, we opted for a change of scenery (mainly to evade the starting monsoon season on the east coast). Off we were, first to Khao Lak and then to Phuket on the west coast where the monsoon was just trailing off. We settled into a daily routine of meditation practice (more on that in a later post), lots of reading (also mainly on meditation), language learning (Christian is continuing his German practice; I started to learn Spanish), wedding blog writing and video editing, and some exercise. All of that with nice beach breaks, new activities (elephant riding & bathing!) and lots of tasty Thai food in between 🙂

It’s been really pleasant to “settle down” in Thailand for three weeks after having been on the move for three months. A great way to explore Thailand’s culture while carving out time for our personal projects. More details to come on the latter soon! Stay tuned, C&C

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Trekking in the Bhutanese Himalayas

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Exhilarating, strenuous, cold, remote, stunning, and very rewarding. Those are just a few of the words that come to mind when summarizing our recent 7-day trek to the Jhomolhari base camp in the Bhutanese Himalayas.

I was very much looking forward to this adventure and being back in the remote wilderness. I must admit, however, that I tend to romanticize those type of trekking trips, somehow forgetting the unavoidable painful moments. But Christian and I love the challenge. And with that challenge comes appreciation and a sense of accomplishment. And that’s what we feel looking back on our Himalaya adventure.

The incredible thing about an organized trekking tour (you have to book through a travel agency to get a tourist visa to Bhutan) is that you really “just” have to carry yourself up (and down) the mountains. Everything else is taken care of. Tenzin, our tour guide, brought us up to speed with Bhutan’s history and every imaginable story about Buddhism; our horse guide took care of our seven pack horses; and three other guys managed the camp. Yep, that’s right: 5 men and 7 horses supporting just the 2 of us! Sounds like luxury camping. But wasn’t. The whole experience was still an adventure. It was physically challenging (we hiked an average of 15km a day with an average altitude difference of 1500-2000m), it was hard to breathe (our highest pass was 4890m), and it was cold (freezing temperatures at night which made sleeping through pretty much impossible). But it was so worth it. Here is a glimpse of our daily “life in the mountains”:

Day 1: Talking about challenges, we didn’t even make it to our starting point on Day 1. Heavy rain in the days before our hike had caused some landslides, blocking the road. Our driver, determined to navigate through the narrow opening on the street, tried to make it through. That turned out to be a bad idea. The car slid to the left and hit a huge rock. Luckily, the damage wasn’t too bad.

There was no way, however, to drive any further so we packed up our stuff and decided to walk instead, adding 3 extra kilometers to the 22 kilometers planned for that day. And the fun was only about to begin. The rain had turned the rocky trail into an enourmous mud slide. What we expected to be a long but leisurely hike through the sub-tropical forests ended up being an 8-hour balancing and rock-jumping exercise.

Exhausted but proud of our progress, we reached the camp side where hot tea and a glimpse of the stunning Jhomolhari summit, Bhutan’s second tallest peak, awaited us.

Day 2: We woke up to sunny skies and a crystal clear view onto Jhomolhari. Just beautiful.

Energized we set out to conquer the next 17km of the trek, hugging the valley floor and a fast flowing river.

Close to the 4000m altitude mark we came through a small village. Really just an accumulation of a handful of houses. It’s hard to imagine to live in such a harsh climate. The place is snowcovered from November to March and people mainly live off yaks and sheep. Despite being remote, the people were quite inviting. A group of villagers that were catching up (outside in the cold) happily posed for pictures. And some school boys took the opportunity to practice a few English phrases with us.

After one more hour we reached the base camp (4080m) with spectacular views onto the 7314m high Jhomolhari. It got cold pretty quickly so we bridged the time until dinner, snuggling up and reading in our sleeping bags. Besides the actual hike, dinner was the main highlight of the day. We couldn’t wait for our daily dose of hot soup – the best imaginable thing when it’s cold outside. Well, actually, there was something that topped the soup. When we all huddled in the kitchen tent that night, our crew produced a whiskey bottle. Not being a big whiskey fan my enthusiasm was limited. But, hey, try that stuff with some hot water. It’s magic! The perfect way to warm up before jumping back into your sleeping bag.

Day 3: Our acclimatization day. In order to avoid altitude sickness, the itinerary plans in an acclimatization day at the base camp. While we had woken up to clear views, that soon changed.

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We set out on a 4-hour hike up to the actual base of Jhomolhari and got caught in a hail storm before it started to snow a bit. Crazy how you can get all types of weather within a couple of hours.

Back at the camp in the afternoon, the sun reemerged. Time for some hooping with the crew! This turned out to be super fun. Our horse guide had the funniest technique and everyone cracked up laughing. Once dusk was upon us, the typical routine kicked-in: reading, dinner, mystical stories in the kitchen tent over our shot of “hot-water whiskey”, some more reading, bedtime 🙂

Day 4: This was a tough day with an ascent of 800m followed by a descent of 1000m. But also very rewarding. We passed yak herders through a stunning scenery with crisp blue alpine lakes and rivers. The weather gods kept challenging us with a hail storm during the last 200m of our ascent. But we made it up to the highest point on our route (4890m), cold and sweaty at the same time!

The amazing outlook was shortlived, however, as we needed to make a 1km vertical descent back down to our camp. Again, the scenery made up for the workout. Our path led us through rocky cliffs, wildfower meadows, various nomadic settlements and provided incredible views onto gigantic waterfalls.

Our camp was tucked away in a beautiful small opening in the wood right next to the river. Optimistic about the sun that broke through the clouds, I took a little “shower” in the river. But, somewhat predictably, the weather turned rainy and cold within minutes so my enthusiasm was shortlived. I jumped back in my usual 5-layer outfit immediately. The attempt to start a cozy bonfire was rained out. But we had gotten a few minutes of warmth.

Back to our usual treat: a bit of hot whiskey and hot water bottles. Yes, our crew prepared hot water bottles for the night for us! This was another nice surprise. Reminded me of my childhood when I was sick and my mum would tuck me into my bed with a hot water bottle. Without our little “heaters” I would have probably woken up even more times during night.

Day 5: Both Christian and I thought we had the hardest day of the trek behind us. Happily we jumped “out of bed”, stretched our stiff bodies and eagerly awaited our hot coffee and breakfast.

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Our cook kept surprising us with new items. That day he produced pancakes. Strengthened, we continued the journey. But it was not as easy as expected. The previous four days of intense hiking in altitude must have taken a toll on us. Both Christian and I moved in slow motion, our bodies feeling incredibly tired. Like snails we dragged ourselves up the first 200m past hillsides lush with rhododendrons before gradually climbing above the tree line again. And then we hit the last killer ascent, a steep 550m climb up to our last pass (4520m) on the trek. Mentally, this was the toughest stretch for Christian and me. But I also knew it would be our last big one. And again, stunning views from the top. Only one more hour downhill to our camp for the day!

Arriving at the camp, Tenzin, our guide, surprised us with a Druk 11000. Druk is one of Bhutan’s national beers. The Druk 11000 is an extra strong version with 8%. We were happy 🙂

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Day 6: Our last day of hiking. One more last, steep ascent before venturing into a 1.6km vertical, rocky downhill path. The weather gods on our side, we had sunshine for the whole day. After arriving at the camp site around lunch time, we ventured out to meet locals in the nearby village.

While enjoying a beer at a local grocery shop (really just a room with some basic goods), we got a peak at “doma”. Doma is an integral part of Bhutanese culture. It’s made out of betel nut, betel leave and lime (synthetic calcium carbonate). You chew the mixture which makes your mouth go slightly numb and stains your teeth red. It’s spat out after chewing, so you can see doma stains on the ground all over the place in Bhutan. These days the government is trying to reduce the use of it given its addictiveness and negative health implications. But it’s so ingrained in Bhutanese culture that people, especially older ones, won’t give up the habit.

Two little girls, just back from school, were curiously peaking through the shop window. Happy that I had brought the hoop, we attempted to teach them how to do it. Very timid at first, the girls barely dared to touch it. But with a little encouragement they went for it, and had a lot of fun.

Back at the camp there was one more game we wanted to try. A typical Buthanese stone-throwing game. Sounds pretty simple (i.e., just get the stone as close to the target as possible). Turns out it’s not. Both Christian and I were pretty bad at it. Our trekking crew, unsurprisingly, “rocked” the game.

With a little bit of nostalgia, we enjoyed our last trekking meal that evening. Our cook surprised us again – this time with empanadas and a pizza! What a treat on our last night camping. Satisfied, we stumbled into our tent and, admittedly, were both looking forward to a proper shower and sleeping in a real bed again the next day 🙂

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A day at the ancient market in Shaxi

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It was bustling with people. Old and young, equipped with soon-to-be-filled wooden baskets on their backs, made their way through the narrow streets. Street vendors everywhere. Lined up one after the other on either side of the street or scattered throughout the middle. The air was filled with a variety of scents. Some of them quite good, tempting us to explore their origins, others less so. Christian and I found ourselves at the weekly Friday market in a town called Shaxi.
Shaxi, which is located in the Yunnan province only about a 2 hours drive away from Lijiang, started as a trading point for tea and horses during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It’s said to be the most intact horse caravan town on the ancient tea route leading from Burma to Tibet. We were struck by Shaxi’s authenticity. Lijiang (known as the main attraction in the region), Shuhe Old Town (where we stayed at a lovely B&B called “The Bivou”) or Baisha (where we met Dr. Ho) were all beautiful but also felt somewhat gentrified and quite touristy. Shaxi, in contrast, felt more untouched, had more local shops and just in general seemed to go about its daily business instead of catering to tourists. It was beautiful and incredibly refreshing. At times Christian and I seemed to be the main attraction in town, getting curious looks from locals ourselves. Wandering the streets, we made some interesting observations.
Besides a very rich local produce offering, teas, staples, clothing and household items, people also stocked up on livestock (or alive animals that would meet the dinner table soon). A small “chicken market” offered a variety of alive chickens in the age range you desired. You just picked the chickens you liked, packed them in a cardboard box and tied the box to your wooden shopping basket.
Then there was the “fish market”, an accumulation of low, square plastic basins with all sorts of fish. You could get them gutted or alive (in a plastic bag).
That said, the most unexpected offering were dental and ear doctor services. Imagine the dentist’s office as a simple plastic chair next to a table with some accessories on the side of the road. The dental offering seemed to consist of cleaning services, teeth removal and also prosthetics. For the latter, one could choose from a few used (yes, used!) dental implants. Some of them were missing teeth. Others were decaying already. I guess better than nothing if options are limited. ‘Unfortunately’, no one seemed in need of (or was willing to undergo) any procedures while we were there.
The ear doctor, however, seemed in higher demand. He was examining the left ear of a middle-aged man. A crowd of onlookers had gathered in a close circle around the patient’s chair. I almost squirmed when the ear doctor, quite a young man, took his silver instrument and ‘dug’ into the patients ear. He moved the long tweezers forcefully from one side to the other. The patient grimaced out of pain. This was not pretty to watch. Suddenly, a dark brown piece (the size of a fingernail) materialized itself. The ear doctor dropped it in a little yellow metal jar on the table. That’s when I realized that the jar already contained dozens of others brown pieces. All of the pieces were earwax! Earwax that probably accumulated over many, many years. The patient played around with his ear, testing his hearing abilities. He seemed pleased with the results. With that ‘fluff’ removed his hearing ability must have just jumped 10x! I was, however, still questioning the doctor’s method. Couldn’t the patients ear get hurt in the process? The doctor, for sure, had attracted some more attention and would probably make good business that day.
Having worked up an appetite, Christian and I hit a few food stalls, eating our way through a selection of noodles and desserts. We didn’t really have an idea what exactly was offered but with an adventurous spirit we tried various dishes. The first dish was a mix of cold rice noodles with different spices, cilantro and a type of soy sauce. Then I saw some kids taste an interesting drink. It was of brownish color with some sort of solid, gelatinous balls inside. Upon tasting it I found it a bit too sweet but good nonetheless. And then we tried this dish that we had seen several times throughout the day. Grayish looking thick, solid custard that was mixed with noodles, spring onion, peanuts and a variety of sauces. Even to this day I still don’t know exactly what we ate. Christian thinks it was lard, I keep telling myself it was some gelatinous, rice-based substance.
With both of our stomachs and curiosity satiated, we made our way back to Shuhe Old Town with a quick stop over at Mount Shibao, renowned for its grottoes with Buddhist sculpture carvings. The day had been a highlight of our stay in the Yunnan region, truly transporting us back to another time.
3

Hula Hoops and Smiles in Mongolia 

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People stare at me and my luggage when I walk through an airport. Their attention is drawn to what looks like a big shiny neon yellow and orange ring that is hanging over the handle of my pink carry on bag. My hula hoop.

Teeba, one of my good friends and a passionate hooper, suggested I try hooping as well. We both love to dance and besides being a great workout, hooping is a form of self expression and, if done to music, a form of dance. Her wedding present for me: a collapsible hoop that I could take with me on our world tour! I love it.

One of my goals on our journey is to get better at hooping (but more on that at a later point as I’m still in the beginner’s stage). However, so far the hoop also had another, unexpected effect on our journey. It helped us connect with people around us, bridging any cultural or language barriers. This shiny toy attracts attention. It sparks curiosity. From little kids to older people, without us prompting, they come over, pick up the hoop and just play. It’s as if the hoop brings out their inner child.

Here are a few impressions from Mongolia. The hula hoop helping us meet new people and creating lots of smiles.

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Discovering new kinds of dairy in Mongolia

 

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Mongolian cuisine is very much defined by the limitations of nomadic living. As a nomad, you can only really eat things that can travel easily with you. Think cows, yaks, sheep, goats and horses. You have a limited ability to grow crops as a nomad, and not a lot of space in your Ger (tent) or on your carriage to be lugging around elaborate spice racks. So what’s left is diet rich in meat and dairy, without a lot of fresh veggies, and generally quite basic flavour profiles. That said, within these limitations the Mongolians have devised a very creative diet, particularly when it comes to dairy. Our guide, Ashley, told us that Mongolians have very white teeth because they eat so much dairy. Although I’m yet to verify this causal relationship, it is true that Mongolians do seem to have white teeth and they definitely love their dairy.

Our closest encounters to traditional Mongolian cuisine, and the omnipresence of dairy, came on the few occasions when Christine and I had a chance to visit nomad families inside their Gers. On arrival, we were met with an almost identical ritual each time: milk tea was poured out of a tall furnace into small ceramic bowls; homemade bread was pulled out of a tin and cut into slices; and from underneath a table came out a very large bowl of whipped butter cream and a basket of curd chips. All of these were gently offered to us, and following Mongolian custom, we accepted each item graciously.

The milk tea seemed to be simply milk infused with a tiny bit of black tea and it tasted quite good. The whipped butter cream, which is meant to go with the homemade bread, tasted like the stuff I’ve made when I accidentally whipped cream for too long and it became butter-like. So in this case, the taste was quite familiar. That said, I was taken aback when I saw how much butter they typically spread on: “You like a bit of bread with your butter?” However, the curd chips tasted like nothing I’ve ever had before. I was told that they are made from skimming the curd off the top of yogurt, and leaving it out to dry out in the sun. The chips come in a range of shapes and sizes. Some are round with a small hole in the middle, kind of like a big button. Some look like big potato chips. Others are small, odd shaped pieces that kind of look like popcorn. Despite the variation in appearances, they all kind of have the same funky, sour taste of “off yogurt”. The first one I was offered, I obligingly ate it all. In the next Ger camp when I was offered it, my stomach could only manage to eat half of it before I quietly placed the remainder in my pocket. The times after that, I politely accepted the chip, pretended to take a bite and then subtlety placed the whole chip in my pocket.

Yet these were the tamer side of our dairy discoveries in Mongolia. On the more exotic side was fermented horse milk (airag), which is popular in Mongolia and believed to have medicinal properties. The thought of drinking the milk of a horse initially sounded off putting, although Christine and I were pleasantly surprised that it didn’t taste too bad.

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However, the prize for our most interesting dairy discovery goes to yogurt vodka. Yes, that’s right. Vodka made from distilling yogurt. Once upon a time I liked tequila until I had a really big night on it when I was 18-years old, and ever since then the smell of it or the tiniest sip will make me squirm. That’s pretty much the immediate reaction I had when I tasted yogurt vodka.

While I won’t be rushing to my local supermarket to seek out any of these new “delights”, I have a huge appreciation and admiration for the Mongolian people in their adaptation of foods to their environment. Mongolians have created a truly unique food culture.

Oh, and on the topic of food in Mongolia, here’s a video of me swallowing a live fish we caught in a river:

10

For experienced riders only

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I had an uneasy feeling in my stomach. Was this really a good idea? Or would I regret this later? Or worse, even come out injured? It was a brisk but clear and sunny morning and I was standing next to “our” horses that would carry us across Northern Mongolia over the next seven days. And there were many of them. Ten in total. Six for us to ride on (Christian, myself, our tour guide Ashley, our cook Segi and our two horse guides Jagaa and Galaa) plus four pack horses. The horses looked restless, pacing back and forth in the realm of their ropes. Not very comforting that they were also kicking at each other once in a while! I hadn’t realized what “half wild” meant. Had that even been mentioned in the brochure when we booked the trip? I guess it must have been. My thoughts were interrupted as Jagaa, the main horse guide, called for me. It was time to get up on my horse.

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Several months ago, when Christian and I started to plan our big trip, we both had a few “must dos” on our personal wish lists. One activity on mine was a multi-day horse back trek in Mongolia. I was excited by the thought of traveling through the least densely populated place on earth – on a horse and only with a tent. That sounded like the ultimate sense of freedom and adventure (and something to do before we would have kids). I found a great option. A French tour company, called Randocheval, offered a 20-day Mongolia trip: two horse back treks (one seven days, one five days) in different parts of the country with ger camp stays, hiking and monastery visits in between. The only catch: the description said “for experienced riders only”. I felt a bit unsure. I had some horse back riding experience from three day-long trips I did over the course of the last 10 years. Christian was a bit more experienced than I was. However, the classification “experienced rider” would be a bold exaggeration for both of us. I dropped the tour operator a line and got back good news. As long as we were both healthy, physically fit and had been on horses before we should be fine!

So here we were at Lake Kovsghol (in Northern Mongolia very close to the Russian boarder) and I was wondering if my enthusiasm and romanticism of a horse trek had gotten the better of me when booking this trip. Ashley, our tour guide, gave us a few quick instructions. Well, three to be exact. #1: always approach the horses from the left hand side (otherwise they might freak out), #2: say “choo” if you want the horse to go faster (and do so loudly conveying control), #3: never let go of your reigns. Really, that was everything I needed to know? What should I say if I wanted the horse to stop? But there was no more time for questions. Jagaa helped me get up (from the left side) onto my new buddy for the next week. So far so good. My horse seemed to be fairly calm. Then another thought crossed my mind: “Horses can feel if you are nervous”. Isn’t that what people always tell you? Great. My horse was probably already working out a grandiose master plan on how to play me. I kept telling myself “this feels good”, “I can do this”, hoping to convey confidence. Suddenly my horse started moving, following the horse guides and the pack horses up onto our first hill. Off we were on our trip!

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Over the next two days I grew closer with my horse as we were walking and trotting along the lake over open meadows, passing through dense woods and seemingly endless valleys. Christian and I decided that our horses needed names. He named his “Pferdeknoedel” one of the first words he learned in German (the meaning is similar to “horse poo”). I baptized mine “Clumsy”. It kept tripping over stones, roots and there-like. It seems that horses can’t really see very well which is kind of scary to be honest. And Clumsy seemed to have a higher incidence rate of tripping than the rest of the pack which freaked me out at times (it feels like your horse might fall and you with it). Day 3 was a highlight, in more ways than one. In the morning Segi, Ashley, Christian and I took off, leaving the pack horses behind and cantered (kind of like a slow gallop) through a broad valley. It was a beautiful feeling (first time I cantered!) and it felt like I had made a big jump in my horse back riding skills. Just before lunchtime we were crossing a swamp with a small stream of water. I was on guard as our horses seemed easily scared by water (and anything unexpected that might be in it). I was right behind Segi’s horse, trying to make Clumsy cross the stream slowly. And then it happened. Segi’s horse got spooked and jumped back. Seeing this, Clumsy lost it. He made a leap forward, overtaking Segi’s horse. Then kicked both his back legs back before he jumped up in the air with his front legs up. It felt like riding a very aggressive bull. I was scared to death. Everything happened in slow motion (or so I believed, as according to Christian the whole episode probably didn’t take longer than six seconds). And I only had one thought in my head: “Don’t fall of the horse”. I was so afraid that I might break a bone or even have something worse happen to me… My dad got thrown of a horse when he was young and broke his collar bone. Even though he had been an experienced rider he’s never gotten back onto a horse after that. I must have somehow internalized that story. With my right hand I held onto my saddle as strongly as I could. After a few seconds I must have realized that I also still had the reigns in my left hand. In a moment of clarity I pulled back the reigns as strongly as I could and just screamed “brrr” and “stop” (that’s what riders say in Austria to stop a horse; stopping a horse in Mongolian hadn’t been part of the intro for this trip). The horse was still wild. After a couple of seconds it calmed down and stopped. I was in shock. I couldn’t move and was just sitting there until Jagaa arrived and got a hold of the reigns. I stumbled off the horse and realized how much I was trembling. But, I had not fallen off. Somehow my survival instinct had kept me on that horse. Everything was ok. It felt like a miracle.

The afternoon and next morning were interesting. We continued the trek. There would have really not been any other option, plus, getting back up on the horse immediately seemed like the best way to get over this incident. Jagaa and Galaa were impressed that I had managed to stay on the horse and manage to calm it down. So the good news was that I had been able to deal with the situation despite my limited horse back riding skills. The bad news: what if it would happen again? I must admit that I lost trust in Clumsy. What would freak him out next? A fly on a random meadow? So I decided to exert more control. I was alert every single second, held the reigns tight, kept scanning the ground for any stone or hole that might trip him up and steered him around it. It was exhausting and not very much fun. Clumsy didn’t like it much either. Neither did Christian as I turned into a tense and somewhat unhappy companion. So what should I do given we still had three full days ahead of us? The more I thought about it the more I realized that being on guard every second wouldn’t change much. What had happened was serious and I learnt from it but one can’t really foresee such incidences. Plus, I had shown that I at least have a chance of dealing with such a situations. So that made me feel a little bit better. Secondly, the incident had nothing to do with my horse in particular. Mongolian horses are half wild so they are by nature a bit more uncontrollable. So I tried to change my mindset and relax my rules of “controlling” the horse the next morning. It worked. Clumsy was much more calm and I was able again to enjoy the experience and take in the wonderful scenery.

Reflecting on our time in Mongolia, I’m really glad that we chose to do the trip. The incident was dangerous and rattled me. That said, we achieved what we had envisioned when we set out to do this trip. We got our fair dose of adventure. We had a true feeling of freedom. And I also took my horse back riding skills to the next level. In the second leg of our horse riding trip around the Amarbayasgalant Monastery we actually spent most of our time cantering and galloping! That said, I wouldn’t call myself an “experienced” rider quite yet 🙂

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Making new friends

IMG_3492 (Small) One of the goals of our year-long trip is to get to know people around the world and hear their stories. Turns out that Cappadocia was a great place in that regard. We had booked a day-long tour to visit some of the main sights in the area (called the “Green Tour” that hits the Derinkuyu Underground City, Ihlara Canyon and the Selime Monstery). Upon boarding our mini-bus outside of our B&B, the Rose Valley Guesthouse, we saw a couple jump in right after us. After only five minutes on the bus, the guy turned around and asked where we are from. Turns out he, Greg, is from Australia, born in the same district of Sydney as Christian, studied opera singing and will get married this December at the same church that Christian’s parents got married at. What are the odds! Only after a few minutes of chatting, I knew we would get well along with the two of them. Hannah, who is originally from the UK but has been living in Australia for the past seven years, works in social media marketing. Greg is a teacher. Both seemed easy going, cracked jokes, shared their own stories about life and were really interested in what we were up to. What I initially expected to be a rather touristy and theory-packed day (in general, I’m not a big fan of group tours) turned out to be really fun and interesting. Not only was the tour much better than I thought (thanks to our upbeat tour guide Dennis who shared many stories about Turkey’s history and culture but also made an effort to introduce the whole group to each other) but sharing this experience with others and making personal connections made a real difference.

Even without making concrete plans to meet up again (that said, the four of us were living in the same B&B), life had another encounter planned for us! The same day after dinner in the village, Christian and I were passing a little restaurant (well, one could say it was more of a cave/barn) I saw someone waving in the corner of my eye. I almost ignored it, thinking some local wanted to lure us in for dinner or to sell us some other goods. Fortunately I did take a closer look, as it was Greg sitting there with Hannah! What was intended as a quick hello, turned into a true Turkish cultural experience. Ali, the owner of the place called “The World of Kebab” couldn’t speak much English. But turns out he had spent 30 years of his life in Germany so we were able to communicate in German (plus, Greg, who’s really into languages, speaks German as well). Ali had returned to Cavusin (the little town we stayed in next to Goreme) about five years ago. While he was ready to move back to Turkey and be closer to his family after three decades in Germany, it sounded like he was still trying to re-integrate in his little village. Having grown up in a small town myself, I can see how hard it must be to come back to a place with a well-knit community where everyone has grown up with each other. That said, Ali seemed to focus on the positive side of things. He proudly showed us how he had built a baglama (also called saz), a Turkish guitar. And a few minutes later there we were: listening to his guitar play and singing, passing around a drum so that all of us could showcase our musical talents. Curious to learn what Ali had planned with his restaurant, he showed us two adjacent cave rooms that he was renovating (formerly used as stables for animals). Not only was he going to redo both rooms by himself, he also decorated them with his own wall paintings and sculptures. It struck me that Ali was (and probably needed to be) completely self-sufficient to make his dream come true. Very inspiring to see him with such energy and enthusiasm as he was building out his small business! At the end of this special evening, we took our “running into each other” destiny in our own hands and Greg, Hannah and we decided to meet up again for a sunset dinner picnic the next day (yay, I love picnics!)

The next day we met Greg and Hannah at 6pm and assembled the last delicatessen for our picnic feast. Turns out we came up with a good spread of nuts and dried fruit, local cheese, some bread, savory pancakes (think ‘wrap’), a chicken sandwich and, of course, some local red wine. A short, steep ascent later, we were on top of the “old city” of Cavusin (ancient caves that were built into the stone walls of the hill). It was a beautiful and fun evening, enjoying a great conversation over local food while watching the sunset. We learned that Greg and Hannah just got engaged (one week after our wedding!) and are about to move to Hong Kong to “try something new” (where we may try to meet up again when we visit our friend Shilpa in September). Lots of our conversation centered on learning languages. It’s really fascinating. The topic of language learning and how to best go about it keeps coming up on our journey. So does Duolingo, an online language learning app, which seems to already have gained widespread use around the globe. If you are interested in learning a new language, stay tuned. Christian will soon write a blog post on his insights while learning German.

Cappadocia, thanks for introducing us to Greg, Hannah and Ali. I felt like I got to know the more personal side of the little village of Cavusin and made friends that we’ll hopefully meet again on our journey around the world.

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Tomorrowland: Boom, Belgium, 2014

untitled%2520%25281%2520of%25201%2529-375 (Small)I can only recall a handful of times in my life where I’ve experienced a kind of sensory overload that has made me feel like I’ve been transported to another world (previous occasions would probably be my trip to Kolkata in 2006 and Burning Man in 2011). But that is what I felt at the Tomorrowland music festival in Belgium last week. It was another world.

In normal circumstances, Christine and I probably wouldn’t have signed up to fly to a 3-day long music festival in Belgium. Generally we prefer to spend our precious few vacation days doing romantic trips together more akin to our Sardinian honeymoon. But now that we’ve embarked on a one-year long around the world trip, when our close friends Teeba and Basel suggested we join them for Tomorrowland this year, we found ourselves saying “why not?!”

Quick background on Tomorrowland for the non-initiated (which included me as of a few months ago) is that it is one of the world’s largest (if not “the largest”) electronic dance music festivals, with 180,000 attendees. Established in 2005 by a couple of Belgian party dudes, it quickly grew from 10,000 people coming to a one day event to 180,000 people coming to a festival that spanned 3-days. Each year they sell out within a couple of hours (or sometimes only minutes) of making the tickets available. Part of the attraction is the ability for the event to attract the entire lineup of the world’s most well-known DJs (think Above and Beyond, Paul Van Dyk, Tiesto, Moby etc.). However, I’d be selling Tomorrowland short to say it is all about the lineup, because it really is much more than that. The setup of the stages, the art installations and chill-out areas are beyond anything I’ve ever seen at a music festival before. The best way I can think of describing it is to say is that it felt like Disneyland for adults (with apologies to my friend Jaime who I know would cry out “Disneyland is for adults” if he were to read this…). There’s a YouTube clip of the 2012 Tomorrowland festival that captures the spirit well that has had over 115 million views! Worth checking out.

In case that clip made no sense to you, let me explain what we got up to. Having finished our honeymoon in Sardinia, Christine and I flew to Lisbon to meet our friends Teeba, Basel, Shilpa and Jessica, along with our new friend, Rahul, who Shilpa had brought along from Singapore. While it may have been a more direct flight to go straight from Sardinia to Brussels (near where Tomorrowland is located) the reason we went to Lisbon was so that we could take the special Tomorroland chartered flight out of Lisbon (they set up several of these out of many cities from Europe. Lisbon was the only one we could tickets to).

The party plane lived up to it’s expectations. Shortly after take-off, the window shades were lowered, the cabin lights turned off, beer trolleys came out and dance music was turned on. What ensued was a dance rave at 30,000 feet. When we landed in Brussels 2.5 hours later, we all were not sure where the time went.

From Brussels we were transferred to the aptly named town of Boom where Tomorrowland is located. We commented to each other that we expected that the residents of this small town must hate having their home invaded every year by so many people. However, we were pleasantly surprised to see locals coming out of their homes as our buses passed by to smile and wave to us, many also waving the distinctive Tomorrowland flags. Later in the festival I had the chance to meet a local and asked her what people really thought. While she said not everyone was thrilled with the event, that many people did embrace it and that the organizers invested a lot in winning over the locals, including giving them free day passes to come to the event.

After the short 30 minute bus ride, we arrived at the location on Thursday evening. While the majority of attendees stay at a location outside of Boom (e.g. in a hotel in Brussels), about a third of people stay onsite at Tomorrowland in the camp grounds called Dreamville. In our case, we opted for an upgrade and stayed in the Dreamlodges in Dreamville. They were described as pre-built tents, but in the end way exceeded our expectations. Having been diverted away from the masses that went to set up their own tents at the camp grounds, we arrived at the check-in counter of what felt like a tropical island resort. We were then guided to our cute canvas tiki tents where two flowers awaited us laid upon the mattress of our comfortable beds. Having expected to be somewhat roughing it in tents, I was very pleased to know I’d have a bed I could look forward to return to each day! (TOMORROWLAND TIP: splurge a bit and do the Dreamlodges. They’re worth every penny).

Later that evening they had a welcome event for everyone staying at Dreamville (which in itself was a bigger concert than many I’ve been to before), however we decided to not go too big this night knowing that we had some big days ahead. Also, the performance of the DJs was not as good this evening. Too much unnecessary chatter coming from the DJs which kind of interrupted the flow. Fortunately the performances at the actual festival were all much better!

After a refreshing nights sleep, we awoke to the hum of dance beat sounds in the distance. Tomorrowland was officially beginning. We continued to feel convinced that we had made the right call to do the Dreamlodges when we saw the breakfast buffet (once again more akin to what you’d see at a luxury resort than at a dance festival) and this feeling was yet again reaffirmed when our tickets allowed us to skip the lines at the entrance to the festival.

Once inside Tommorrowland, we were all taken aback as to the sheer enormity of the place and the attention to detail of the organizers in creating an environment that truly felt out of this world. I will try to describe it here but no doubt will not do it justice. The festival is inside a park that covers about a 1 squared km space. Scattered throughout the park are 13 stages, each with its own theme. Between the stages are lakes, paths, bridges, food stands, chill out areas, rides and some of the most incredible installations you’ll ever see. Much of it felt like it was shaped around an Alice in Wonderland theme with big brightly colored toadstools, big mirrors and even a couple of DJs who looked liked Mad Hatters (more on these guys later). There were hedge mazes, installations of scores of Barbie dolls attached to long-stemmed flowers, bridges with hundreds of thousands of messages inscribed on the wooden slats (attendees were asked to send their messages prior to the event), light shows beaming across water installations, a massive ferris wheel that looked in proportion to the London Eye… Added to these sights, you had the sounds of the world’s best DJs coming at you from all angles along with the incredible energy of the 180,000 strong crowd. What was also amazing about the crowd was the incredible international representation. I read that more nationalities were represented at Tomorrowland than the 2012 Olympics. And it felt that way with the sheer number of flags people had brought it. And I was proud to see that, as usual, Australia was well represented (in fact, other than Belgium, I think I saw more Australian flags than any other nationality. Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!).

Over the course of the 3 days, the group of us (Basel, Teeba, Shilpa, Rahul, Ardy, Jacques, Jessica, Pato, Eyal, Tamara, Rawan, Rasha, Christine and I) wandered from stage to stage, danced, smiled, laughed and generally soaked up the experience. Too many highlights for me to mention in a single blog post, but if I were to choose one, it would be what occurred on Saturday evening mid way through the festival. After spending several hours in a dark tent dancing to trance music, the group emerged for a wander around the grounds and stumbled across the Grand Theater stage, which we were to later christen as “Happy Land.” The stage was one of the smaller ones at the festival, situated on a platform in the middle of the lake. The DJs playing were called Bart & Baker. None of us had ever heard of these guys and they looked a couple of decades older than any of the other DJs playing at the festival. But they were fun. Really fun. And as I alluded to before, these were the guys kind of dressed up like Mad Hatters. The tunes they played were kind of like a mix of Loony Tunes cartoons, upbeat jazz and electronic dance music. Across from the stage was a small chillout area (also on a platform on the lake). A few of the group peeled off to this area to dance. What then ensued was somewhat of a dance off (or perhaps a better way to describe it was “follow the other side”) where people would dance funny moves from one platform and the people from the other platform would copy. So much fun. It kept us entertained for hours :).untitled%2520%25281%2520of%25201%2529-368 (Small)

Some other notable highlights from the 3-days to mention were being introduced to Nervo, two DJ sisters from Australia (I’ve clearly been away from home too long), participating in the 8-hour marathon trance session with Markus Schulz followed by Paul Van Dyk, and getting to see my favorite DJs right now, Above and Beyond, on main stage (although the downside of mainstage was that they probably didn’t take as many risks as they would have had they been on a smaller stage).

Fast forwarding to the end of day 3, on Sunday evening at 11:30pm (30 minutes before the official close of the event) Christine and I sneaked away from Tomorrowland and made our way back to the bar at our Dreamlodge. We arrived minutes before the beginning of July 28th, my birthday. Since everyone else was celebrating the final few moments of Tomorrowland, we had the bar to ourselves which gave Christine the opportunity to collect 34 candles from all of the other bar tables to make me a mini birthday celebration for me. That along with a nice drop of red wine was how my 34th year began :).

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The next day, we stumbled out of bed early at 7am to make our flight to from Brussels to Lisbon. For the first time in days we had some heavy rain (we heard they use sound canons at Tomorrowland to keep the storms away…) which appropriately matched the mood we felt as we dragged our heavy legs to the bus and bid farewell to the little town of Boom. We imagined the residents must have let out a sigh of relief to have their town back. Similarly, we felt relief to be returning to “normal” life in the real world. Tomorrowland exceeded my wildest expectations. A friend asked me at the event if I’d do it again. While I couldn’t imagine mustering up the energy to do it again next week (or even next month), in a year’s time (or in several years) I can definitely imagine coming back.

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SPECIAL THANKS to Jessica Postiglione for providing most of the photos for this post!

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“These are a few of my favourite things…” (to do in Vienna)

IMG_1173The other day I found myself at a bit of a loose end after Christine had left me home alone in Vienna to go to her Hen’s (bachelorette) weekend. So rather than just mull around the apartment I decided to make a day of it and hit up all of my favorite places in Vienna. Hopefully you’ll find this list useful if you ever find yourself in beautiful Vienna :).

Museum’s Quartier
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I can still remember my first impression of the Museum’s Quartier from my first visit to Vienna back in 2009. It was a mid-summer’s Thursday evening, and the space was packed with young people meeting and drinking together, with cool tunes emanating from a small DJ booth in the corner of the square. In many ways, it epitomizes for me what Vienna is as a city: old world art and culture mixed with youth and vibrancy. Admittedly the place was a little quieter on the overcast morning this time I visited, but regardless the MQ definitely makes the list for me for top places to visit in Vienna. Best seen in the evening on summer’s day, you can chill out on one of the many cool public benches that decorate the square, grab a coffee or drink at the ueber cool cafes or bars, or even visit a museum or art gallery if you’re so inclined (it is the Museum’s quartier after all!). Interesting fact: the MQ used to be the stalls for the army’s horses back in the day. If you take a close look, you’ll notice that the buildings in the quartier have horse figures and horses heads embellished all over.

Glacis Beisel


At the back of the Museum’s Quartier you’ll find one of my favorite Beisels in Vienna, Glacis Beisel. A Beisel is essentially a typical Austrian small restaurant. Menu is usually limited to a short list of Austrian favorites (e.g. Wiener Schnitzel). The reason I love Glacis Beisel is because it puts a modern touch on the traditional Beisel, with cool decor (see pic above of some of the street art painted on the entrance to the Beisel). Previously I had only frequented Glacis during winter when you only have the option of indoor  seating, but today I noticed how charming their outdoor patio looks. I’ll have to go back to experience the summer side of Glacis!

Hofburg

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Next I headed into the 1st district which is really the heart of Vienna. First stop here was the Hofburg, which was the former winter residency of the emperor until the turn of the twentieth century, and today is the official residence of the President of Austria. In my opinion, the Hofburg is the grandest of all the beautiful buildings in Vienna. It is also home to my favorite museum in Vienna – the Sissi Museum and Kaiser Apartments, where you get to hear about the fascinating (and tragic) story of Austria’s last emperor and emperess.

Stephansdom (St Stephan’s Cathedral)

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The tall spire of this iconic Vienna landmark can be seen from many places in the city. I’ve been told that the bell in the tower is the biggest in Europe. Other than that, I don’t know a lot about this place. But suffice to say it’s iconic and worth passing by :).

Trzesniewski’s


By now I’d built up a bit of a hunger walking around, so time to stop by Christine’s favorite Viennese sandwich shop, Trzesniewski’s. This place is a bit of an institution in Vienna, established over a 100 years ago. What makes it special is that everything is bite size. Each open-faced sandwich is barely bigger than a bit so you end up getting to taste 3 or 4 different flavours. And the beers (Pfiffs) are tiny too!

Stadtpark

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Satiated, I then ventured to the Stadtpark on the border of the 1st district. While there are many pretty (or even prettier) parks in Vienna, the reason I like Stadtpark is because of the beautiful golden Strauss statue that you’ll find here. Johann Strauss II was a prolific Austrian composer, particularly known for his waltzes. When Christine and I were choosing a waltz for our wedding first dance, it wasn’t really a question of which waltz, but rather which waltz by Strauss!

Praterstern


Admittedly, Praterstern park is lower on my list of the must see places in Vienna, but it’s worth a mention if only because the big Ferris wheel is an iconic part of the Vienna skyline (even made it onto our wedding invites!). And if you’re a runner, like Christine, you’ll probably enjoy jogging through this park. The park is well loved by children with the many rides on offer, and on the day I was visiting there seemed to be some sort of children’s festival going on.

Schoenbrunn


There was really no better way to end my day than with a trip to Schoenbrunn. I think Schoenbrunn is my favorite place in all of Vienna (note that Schloss Laxenburg, the venue for our wedding, doesn’t count because it is technically outside of Vienna. If it were in Vienna, then this would of course be my favourite place!). Schoenbrunn is one of the old main summer residences of the emperor. In addition to the main palace that greets you at the entrance of the park, Schoenbrunn also has some of the most beautiful gardens and at the backside of the grounds, atop a small hill, lies the Gloriette. Together, these sights make Schoenbrunn one of the most beautiful places you’ll ever see. And if that’s not enough reason for coming here, there is also a zoo (Tiergarten) inside the grounds which is the oldest zoo in the world!