Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Pam's 2014 Update

Hi friends,

It’s the holidays… and as good an excuse as any to share a personal update. Many of you have recently asked about my upcoming travels, and I realize that I haven’t done a particular good job of keeping you in the loop! Which means that you probably don’t know that you can join me somewhere on the planet this year! Would you (or someone you know) like to join me in Nepal, Bhutan, India or Costa Rica? Or do you know someone else who would? Word of mouth is a critical part of what I do, and I would very much appreciate your help in spreading the word.

Below are the trips that I will personally be joining in the coming year for Grand Asian Journeys and EcoTeach Foundation that still have spaces available for others to join (click on the trip title for more information):

March 3-15, 2014                        Annapurna Skyline Women’s Trek
A trek for women only to the spectacular Annapurna region including Pun Hill and even a visit to some local hot springs. Because this is a trip for women we are including several extras like post-trek massage, cooking class, river rafting and more. I only have 3 spaces left on this 12 day/11 night journey. Cost is $2,495.

March 15-21, 2014                                           Highlights of Bhutan
Bhutan is the most progressive, least developed country you can imagine. They’ve banned plastic bags, instituted organic-only agriculture (beginning in 2015), provide free education and health care to all citizens and measure happiness. This in a country where the average person makes less than $3/day.  This 7 day/6 night trip will show you the best of this unique country, including a night at a local family’s home, and a hike to the famous Tiger’s Nest Monastery. 7 days/6 nights, $2,095

November 10-29, 2014                  Everest Base Camp Women’s Trek
Trek the classic route to the Everest Base Camp with other adventurous women! Hike through Sherpa villages with daily breath-taking views of the some of the tallest mountains on earth. This is a great opportunity to experience the majesty of the Himalayas and learn about the history of Kathmandu with a largely female staff and all the extras of the Annapurna women’s trip. 20 day/19 night itinerary, $2,995.

November 30-December 10, 2014            South India: Cuisine & Culture Tour
This trip is a personal dream of mine as India excites my heart and senses in a way that no other country can quite do. While I enjoy all the food of India, the cuisines of South India in particular are unforgettable! Combine that with some of the richest and most diverse history and elaborate temples, warm and wonderful people and you have a fabulous introductory itinerary to everything that makes South India so special. 11 days/10 nights, $2,695.

You probably know about my work with sea turtles in Costa Rica in the past, but you might not know that I remain involved and will be going there with a group in June!

June 7-17, 2014                          Conservation in Action: Costa Rica
Patrolling a tropical Caribbean beach at night looking for nesting Leatherback sea turtles will forever remain near the top of my favorite moments in life! Not only has this trip been planned during prime nesting season but also during hatching season so we are likely to see both adults and baby turtles during our work there. After two nights there, we’ll travel throughout the country to some of my favorite places including the cloud forest, the rain forest, Don Juan’s organic farm and the Pacific beaches. Add to that a tax deductible donation of $350 to support the work of the EcoTeach Foundation and the projects that you will be visiting. This is an awesome opportunity to see the “real” Costa Rica! 11 days/10 nights for $2,250.

Note: Trip costs do not reflect international airfare, visa fees, a couple of meals and personal expenses. Reference each trip’s individual web page for details. If you're interested in joining a trip, please email me and I'll send you details on how to register. 

If 2014 isn't the year for your travel, in 2015 it looks like I’ll be leading trips to Costa Rica, Nepal and Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos & Vietnam). Please respond and let me know if you’d like to stay on my “list”.  And furthermore, if you’d rather not join a group at all please let me plan a custom trip for you to Nepal, Tibet, China, Bhutan, India, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam or Costa Rica.

As for the rest of my life, I am living in Indianola, Washington with my sweetheart of 3.5 years, Keith, walking my adorable golden retriever Willow daily, getting in shape for my upcoming trek and relishing in the good health that has been with me this year. Friends, family, love, work, play and travel consume my thoughts and days.

Thanks for reading! Let me know if you’re inspired (or know someone else who might be!).

With warm holiday wishes to you,


Friday, November 26, 2010

Being Thankful for New Experiences

Oh's been soooo long since I've blogged and there have been soooo many experiences in that time that it's hard to know where to begin. First of all, suffice it to say that I still love India. It is colorful, exotic, alive and exciting all while being infuriatingly un-Western on so many levels. Either you embrace India, bring your sense of humor and have a life-altering experience, or you measure it on familiar standards and go postively insane. I choose the former, and after now spending a total of four months in this country of 1.2 billion people, I can't wait to come back again and again.

This trip has been both familiar and entirely new for me. My amazing friend Gerdien (who I traveled with for nearly five months on my previous journey) came to meet me and we traveled together for nearly three weeks through Rajasthan, with a brief detour up to Amritsar in Punjab. We had a predictably hilarious and adventurous experience, and I can vow that I know what it must be like to travel with Brittany Spears! Gerdiens blonde hair and big blue eyes stop Indians in their tracks, leading to many hilarious encounters.

But India's new experiences will be the focus of this post.

Rajasthan and the Golden Triangle -- On my previous journey, I only spent time in three cities - Varanasi, Bodhgaya and Calcutta. My focus of this trip was to further explore the north part of the country. This was for two reasons - to have fun and experience new places and to create new itineraries for Grand Asian Journeys.

And I did both (New itineraries to be posted soon). Rajasthan means the "land of rajas (or kings) and therefore a big part of touring the northwestern part of the country is visiting the forts and palaces of the historic rajas. Also in Rajasthan, the culture and food are distinct from other parts of India. They still make it easy to be a vegetarian, but parathas replace chapati and naan as the roti (bread) of choice. My favorite places were Udaipur, Jaisalmer and Mandawa. The Amber Fort in Jaipur is also a pretty exceptional destination. Which leads me to my least favorite place in Rajasthan...

Tourist attack at the Taj Mahal - On my previous journey to India, I intentionally skipped the Taj Mahal. This time I knew I needed to visit it as it is one of the top tourist destinations in the world and certainly will be on the wishlist of many people visiting India. My vote: over-rated. Beautiful, yes. But the most beautiful or worthy place in India? No way. Too crowded, too much security, too many lines. The Golden Temple gets my vote for best place to visit.

Finding peace amid chaos: The Golden Temple -- The "vatican for Sikhs", the Golden Temple in Amritsar is one of the most magical, holy places I have ever visited. In order to arrive at this beautiful temple however you have to make your way through one of the busiest, most polluted small cities in India. Amritsar is total chaos! And, the Golden Temple is Absolute Peace. Unlike the Taj Mahal, which is essentially a very exquisite mausoleum built for a rich guy's dead wife, the Golden Temple is an active place of worship. Hundreds of thousands of Sikhs from all over the world come every single day to bathe in the "amrit" (sacred water) around the temple. And the Sikhs are so unlike the stereotype that haunts them. They are kind, generous, non-judgmental, service-oriented ("sehwah" or service to others is the central tenet of their faith) and peace-loving. Unlike all other temples in India that charge up to $20US to visit, the Golden Temple is free to enter (donations are of course accepted) and they will serve a free meal to anyone who walks in. Every day it's estimated that they serve 50,000 free meals to people of all faiths, castes (they do not believe in the caste system), color or need. This is near the top of my list of worthwhile places to visit in India!

Having a business card - For nearly three of my five weeks in India, I traveled with our India travel agent as a part of a FAM (travel industry lingo for familiarization) tour. This was a very new experience for me as it operates very much like a custom tour with all hotels, experiences, transportation, transfers and meals arranged in advance. I felt like a princess! At each hotel, the manager would come out to personally greet me, give me a tour, offer dinner or other special things. My Grand Asian Journeys business card was the key to really royal treatment! Definitely much different than haggling over prices at backpackers hotels with Gerdien!

Sexy temples - Another of my "must visit" destinations in India are the temples of Khajuraho. Created over 1,000 years ago of sandstone, somehow they survived neglect for hundreds of years and have remained absolutely stunning. Set in a peaceful town (there are not many of these in India) and a bit off the beaten path, the temples are worth making a special trip for - especially if you think that the Indians are sexually repressed people! The temples origin is unknown, but some say that it was the "sex education" temple. Certainly that could be true with probably millions of detailed risque sculptures around the complex.

Traveling with a man! -- Some of you know that my boyfriend Keith met me to travel for five weeks through India and Vietnam. That is certainly a new experience worth mentioning! The only awkward part was that people in India assumed that we were married as it is not a normal custom to even see each other before you are married there! The experience has been (and continues to be) a lot of fun for both of us, and yes it is a great way to get to know each other very well!

Indian wedding -- No, it wasn't mine though apparently I did unknowingly undertake a wedding ritual in Varanasi. A simple photo opportunity of some women painting their feet red, turned into my feet being painted, a tikka on my forehead part near my hairline, and voila! I was congratulated for the rest of the day on my marriage, and the hotel staff even asked me to bring sweets (a wedding custom). No, it was not official!

But enough about my supposed wedding. One of my intentions for this trip (but that I was unable to plan for) was to attend an Indian wedding. A major event in Indian life, weddings are planned for auspicious dates based on matching astrological charts by families. Often the couples do not ever see each other before they are tying the knot. A strange custom on Western standards, but as the divorce rates are about 80% less than in Western cultures, perhaps they are onto something?

So, back to my story... we show up at a hotel to outrageous fanfare - drumming, dancing, flowers, food and drinks just for us. After getting over the somewhat awkward welcoming (it was only for the two of us) we were told that there was to be a wedding that night in the village of a girl who worked at their resort. She (16) and her sister (13) were having a double wedding. As they were lower caste people of modest economic status, it was not the huge to-do that I had heard about. Instead, it was maybe even more authentic!

Chaos abounded when we arrived. Drunk men played loud music and danced. And after about 12 seconds, our presence was noticed and the entire focus of the wedding turned to Keith and me. The brides were dragged out of their safe house and "introduced" to us. There were lots of namastes and smiles from us, and utter fear from the brides while dozens of people surrounded us and watched the introduction. The grooms sat on a county fair style electric float with loud Hindi music blaring out of the ill-equipped speaker. Drunk men mobbed us and pulled us on the muddy dance floor. We took turns being in the middle of a circle and acting out some Bollywood dance that we'd seen on TV, and then pointing to someone not inside the circle to come in and outdo us (not a difficult task!). The scenario went back and forth for about 45 minutes until we were dragged by our guest house hosts to the point of the wedding. A strange tradition that involved the groom using a long stick to knock down a tall sign on a stick being held by someone else (don't ask me) apparently indicated that the marriage was official. It became clear to us that our presence was taking attention away from the brides and grooms, so we left shortly after the "ceremony".

Oh, certainly the turbans that had been tied on our heads at the guest house right before the wedding helped us blend in a little too. Yes?

Festival of lights in Varanasi - You might remember that my favorite city in India is Varanasi. It's so deeply spiritual, magnificently poor and undeniably electric. It can move me to tears and goosebumps on a normal day, but we arrived on a ab-normal day: Dev Dipawali. "The festival of lights for God" we were told upon arrival at the airport was the "best night of the year" here, and the local agent had arranged for a nighttime boat ride for Keith and me. As dusk approached and we headed towards the ghats (the steps along the river) we saw thousands (perhaps millions) of small butter lamps being laid out artfully along the sacred Ganges River as an offering to God. As we got on our small private row boat with our guide, the banks of the river came alive with light. Rowing past the burning ghats, the cremation sites for 1,000 people a day, the pyres alive with death, the butter lamps burned on the banks of the river, illuminating the night sky. Music played from the evening "aarti" as thousands of boats crowded around the stage. It was an indescribably religious experience!

The "accidental Brazilian" -Lets just say that getting a bikini wax with your underwear on is one of the riskiest adventures I faced in India. 'Nuf said.

So, I sign off from Vietnam after three full days here. That update will be in the next blog post, hopefully before I get home on Dec. 17!

Happy holidays to you and your families...

With love,

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

My love-hate-love relationship with India

Everyday, every minute, India rocks your beliefs about the way the world is supposed to operate. The words of my shaman teacher float though my mind constantly. "Be open to outcome, not attached to outcome" seems to be the only way through preconceived notions, opinions and attachments. Yesterday I had two distinct experiences that dragged me through the spectrum of tears, frustration and Indian culture.

Situation #1: Tiger, an Indian shop owner, invited Gerdien and me in for chai. He was a young guy and had lived in Europe for a few months so his English was quite good for he was able to engage in a complex conversation. As a sociologist, Gerdien is really observant of the people in the places we visit and I really appreciate this about her. We'd both noticed a relative "shortage" of disabled people in Rajasthan (as opposed to some other regions we'd visited) and she'd also noticed very few mentally ill people on the streets. So she asked him and thus began the conversation that was to make me cry.

"Indians don't need to have mental institutions because our families take care of us. If someone in our family or village is sick or has problems, we all take care of the problem and support each other." He talked about the loneliness that he witnessed in Belgium and he sees in American culture too. He commented that westerners are seemingly more concerned with having the latest things than in supporting our own families through difficult times like aging and sickness. Gerdien asked about medication for depression and if it's a normal prescribed remedy for a common ailment. "No! We take the person into our house and take care of them until they are well. We have no need for medications. We have family." He talked about how so many young Indians idolize western life, and he's concerned that the western way of treating our families will follow suit.

The conversation just rocked's a way of living, being and caring that they have for each other. And it's their culture. How different would our world be if we all lived like this?

Situation #2: We made a reservation to tour the prestigious Lake Palace in Udaipur. We were to arrive around 5pm, have a tour and then watch the sunset. (If you have ever seen James Bond's Octopussy, then you're familiar with Udaipur and the Lake Palace. It's stunning!) So at 4:15 we begin making our way to the boat jetty to catch the small ferry to the island retreat. The conversations we have go something like this:

"It's that way. But if you go this way it will cost you 80% less." (That boat doesn't go to the Lake Palace.)
"You have to go to the Palace Museum to get the boat. You have to buy a ticket to get into the museum to get the boat." (My contact at the hotel did not mention a ticket or a fee so I'm skeptical.)
"The Palace Museum closes at 4:30 so you can not get the boat." (The website says that boat runs 24 hours.)
"You have to phone the Lake Palace and tell them that you are coming so you can get on their security list." (I've done that.) "You have to call them." (I've already done that.) "You need to call them before you buy the ticket." (The ticket that they are unwilling to sell me because it's after 4:30).

I get frustrated, fueled by my first cup of coffee in months, and call my contact at the Lake Palace again to tell them that I'm having a difficult time getting through security. He says, "You only need to go to Bari..." and then silence. My phone battery dies. I try to start it so that I can get the number at least before calling back from the office where I'm sitting, but the phone won't boot.

Next, we're told we don't need to buy tickets but we have to stop at the security office. Like so many Indian offices, this one has eight men sitting in a small room and only one is at a computer. He's busily looking at some Hindi writing on a logbook that looks at least 20 years old trying to answer my question. He gets an email so he's reading it, then the phone rings - at least 10 times - and he finally answers it while all the other seemingly not busy men don't even wince. Then his cell phone rings so he now has two phone conversations going simultaneously (all in Hindi so unfortunately I can't understand them) and I assume he's trying to get my passage through the gate. He hangs up the phones and pulls out the "Security Ticket" book that I assume we're waiting for. He writes the pass, though it takes him another five minutes to sign the ticket as the phones start ringing again and, again, he is the only one in the room interested in touching a phone.

With our pass finally in hand, he tells us with a typical Indian hand gesture using the back of his hand, "Go there". "Where?" I ask. He does it again. "Will you show us?" (at this point it's been an hour of frustration and the thought of getting lost makes me want to scream). He does it again. Finally I grab the arm of the nearest security guard and say, "Please show me where" quite adamantly. And he does. And I turn and offer him a "Namaste" with hands in prayer pose.

Peace. Indian style.

After all of that, we did make it to the Lake Palace and WOW! It is a remarkable old maharaja's palace that was converted to become a hotel in 1962. It's got 17th century splendor and 22nd century prices.

We have three cocktails each. For India.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Thar She Blows: An Indian Desert Experience

Taking a three day camel safari through the Thar Desert of Rajasthan we knew was a risky undertaking. We'd been warned...snakes, scorpions, moody camels, sunburns, bad guides, stomach ailments, boredom were all listed. But Gerdien and I wanted three full days, off the tourist track and not with other tourists so we went looking. The first person we met when looking was Sobhu, with Shera Travels (dial his India mobile 96727-63833). He runs the Temple View Guest House in Jaisalmer and just happened to be returning from the market with an armful of vegetables when we paused outside near his sign which was advertising "Honest fair pricing."

Sobhu charmed us with his gentle kindness and sweet smile. He was not pushy like so many other wallahs we'd been meeting, and showed up pictures of camping under the stars on the sand and small desert villages. He talked about the chapatis he'd make us for lunch and dinner and the ample supply of fresh fruit and bottled water he'd bring. And his prices were indeed beyond fair (about $75 each for the experience including tips.) So we signed up, risks and all, and put our trust in this man who promised to keep us safe above all else.

We began at what can only be called a desert house. It was isolated for miles and miles each direction and there were two goats and one cow outside. The mama was churning goat butter and making ghee while the three adorable children found delight in my camera, despite their shyness. It was built with dung, was open to the elements except for a small covered area and included everything they needed to survive. The youngest boy, maybe 4, walked right up to our camels and seemed to know how to touch them. It was crazy to see such a small child not be afraid of such a large animal!

The day began with clouds and a nice breeze. I even had to wear a long sleeve shirt to keep warm (maybe 60 degrees with wind?) A good omen for our travels they said. (They is Sobhu, our guide, and Puna, our camel driver). We lunched (vegetable curry and chapati) at a simple sandy spot with some shade as the sun had made an appearance with a vengeance! It'd gotten downright hot. And it was here that I stumbled upon an amazing fossil as well, worth $100 to the locals at least. It's got at least 10 three dimensional plant impressions in one 4" x 5" piece. It's stunning! Needless to say, it's coming home with me.

We camped that night with sunshine and more stars than I've ever seen. Sobhu took us on a night camel ride. The camels were very obedient and massively enormous, so the simple and frequent task of getting on and off was cause for frequent fits of laughter. And riding was a bit like riding a horse, but more awkward. Because of the hump the saddle is always slightly leaning forward creating an experience where holding on is very important. After the first hour, we had to get off and walk for two hours, to stretch our aching legs! Subsequent days got easier on the legs and harder on the back, but no major episodes of pain to report, thankfully.

On day two, the day started with sunshine but around lunch time when we were desperately hot and dying to find a shade tree to dine under, Sobhu - himself a man of the desert - announced that rain was coming. It seemed impossible to believe since there had been a three year drought until the past summer. And it's not the rainy season.

First the wind came. It felt like a welcome relief and we happily ate our lunch feeling a bit cooler than the 100+ degree temperature we'd been experiencing that morning. Then the sand storm came. Interesting for me, but dreadful on Gerdien's eyes and contacts. So we faced away from the sand and waited for what was next.

Then the rain came and the guides darted up and called after us to come quickly. They'd built a quick makeshift shelter with a plastic tarp that covered our things with room for us to hide too. It provided an awesome experience for us to experience the desert! The boys sang desert songs to us, and we sang whatever we could muster and both knew the words of. They loved hearing our songs and voices and kept asking for more.

Then we ran out of songs. What to do? Play Truth or Dare, of course! The dares included running out in the rain, from the safety of our tarped abode, and doing kartwheels, dancing, and even farting. Everyone laughed so hard and soon enough the rains were gone. Sunshine appeared from behind the clouds and we watched the weather move across the desert sky quickly. Sobhu emphatically said that we were a blessing to the desert and brought good luck to all the people of the desert. It was a nice vision and I didn't question it. :-)

Right after the storm passed we finally left our lunch spot, albeit about 2 hours late to make our camp for that night. The guides rode together on one camel in front and tied our camels behind theirs. After about five minutes of walking my camel, Papu, got spooked and tried to buck me off. Completely caught off guard I had a hard time holding on and my grip kept coming loose. Of course I screamed and Sobhu, who'd promised to keep me safe at all costs watched in horror for what was probably two seconds, before shouting a command for the camel to stop. I'd been bucked at least three or four times, and was one buck away from falling nine feet to the hard packed rocky desert floor and landing on my head and getting danced on by an obviously angry camel. I don't want to think about what could have happened. But I was safe, thank God, Buddha, Shiva and all else involved in the miraculous recovery. I rode the rest of the day on the back of Sobhu's camel Rocket, who thankfully didn't show his speed to me for which he is named.

We slept so soundly, long and surprisingly peacefully underneath that stars and with the cool night air surrounding us. Despite my fears all I could feel when the sun went down was peace and happiness. Nothing was going to keep me from the deep dreams induced by the desert.

We had an amazing time, toured several desert family homes, visited a village abandoned 400 years ago because of a marriage dispute, and didn't see another single tourist during our entire journey. It was exactly what we'd hoped for, and more than we expected!

I'm left feeling grateful for the experience and for Sobhu keeping his promise to keep us safe. The desert is vast, powerful and awe-some and it left me wanting more sandy adventures!

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Warm and wonderful India

Packing for a trip that takes you trekking to 16,000 feet and then to five-star resorts in 100 degree India is a difficult proposition. That's why I just had to spend $150 to ship 25 pounds of gear home. But the good news is that it opened up a lot of space in my now way-too-empty backpack for the amazing shopping and beauty in Rajasthan. Wow, I'm going to need an intervention soon!!

Warm and wonderful refers to so many things in India...the weather, the people, and the culture to name a few. I was met in Delhi by our local agent for Grand Asian Journeys and I have been treated like a princess ever since. That's both a good thing and a bad thing. It's good because I get to see a side of India that I really didn't get to see on my previous travels. The hotels that I've been visiting are a part of the scouting adventure that I am on to select properties for the tours that I will guide next year in India. And, it's been nice to have a dedicated car and driver to take me from place to place so I don't have to wait for trains and buses etc. The accommodations have been lovely and I've enjoyed every second of it.

Then Gerdien comes. And somehow having a driver/guide just felt like it was removing us from the "real" India or at least the India that we had come to know on our adventure last year. So, after six days getting into the outback of India with our faithful and wonderful driver Anil, we've decided to send him back to Delhi and continue our journey with trains and buses. He brought us back today from our luxury tent experience (sordid details below) and dropped us outside of the Jaisalmer fort. It was the first time in India that I'd put my backpack on my back and walked. And it felt soooo good!! I didn't realize how much I'd missed it.

So more about Rajasthan. It is the state that is due west of Delhi in North India and includes many forts, temples and palaces. It's remarkable in it's beauty and culture. The women look totally different than other Indian women, and I see much less of them here than in other parts of the country. I haven't quite figured out why yet, but all the shop keepers, restaurant workers and people walking through town seem to be of the male persuasion. Curious... I'll let you know if/when I figure out the mystery of the Rajasthani women.

We spent our first night staying in Mandawa, where no trains and only a few tourists stop. It was a blessing to have the driver or we never would've seen this remarkable painted town. We spent just one night here on our quest to get to the desert. The next day we went to Bikaner and spent the day walking through the local markets and didn't see another white face all day. I took lots of photos of beautiful, curious children. It was also a nice town, with an impressive fort - the biggest in Rajasthan, I believe.

The following morning we headed to Jaisalmer, only 30 miles from the border of Pakistan. It is a remarkable city to approach from the desert. It appears like a mirage, a yellow city rising out of the sandstone hill situated in the middle of the Thar desert. It looks like the typical desert city that is usually represented in cartoons. I keep finding myself humming bits from Aladdin, one of my favorite Disney flicks, but I digress...

It's a small town, in India terms. And I like it very much. The bulk of the tourist activity happens inside of the fort (which is about a mile across and covers the entire desert hill). The fort is like a maze with shops and temples on the inside of the walls. It's all built of sandstone and there is so much detail in the architecture. We've made many friends, and continue to be amazed by the warmth of the people.

Last night, for my birthday, we stayed at a luxury tent camp. When we arrived there was a camel waiting for us to take us for a ride out into the desert to watch the sunset. A wonderful gift from our India agent! The camel, named Michael Jackson (to make the tourists laugh, I am sure) was well-behaved and seemingly well loved. As we approached the dunes, the mobs of tourists and tour buses scared me. It felt like Desert Disneyland, which wasn't exactly the experience I'd been looking for. So, our driver walked us past the dunes where everyone stood, to a private hill where we witnessed one of the most beautiful sunsets of all time. It is true what they say about desert sunsets! The tent camp was really nice, with a good music and dance program before dinner. At the end of the program, the crowd sang Happy Birthday and a cake was presented to me. My second birthday cake of the trip!

So, today we came back to the town of Jaisalmer where we were offered approximately 24 cups of chai from various vendors (I only indulged in four) while wandering through the fort. The details of our three-day, two-night camel safari have now been arranged and we'll be leaving first thing in the morning for the adventure. We paid a "little more" to ensure that it will be a private experience and not a part of the tourist caravan. I'm really looking forward to the experience, and hoping that there is enough bottled water on the trip to keep us properly hydrated! (I've been assured there will be plenty). After our 90 minutes on the camel last night today I was feeling a little bit sore. Hmmm...hopefully three days will not be two too many and we'll be able to walk when we get to Udaipur on Monday!

Uploading photos continues to be a challenge, so for now my words will have to do. I will attach them when bandwidth permits!


Saturday, October 16, 2010

Beautiful Bhutan & Early Birthday Cake

With a blog post title like that, you would hope that I would have pictures to share. Unfortunately, the internet speed is too slow to upload now so for now your imagination will have to do... (but they will be posted soon!)

Bhutan is a wonderful, peaceful, beautiful country! It's hard to know where to begin to describe everything that I've seen over the past 12 days. It is a peaceful hamlet sandwiched between India and China. While it is definitely a hilly, mountainous terrain it feels completely different than Nepal. Mostly because there are not 6,000+ meter Himalayan peaks staring at you around every corner! (But I did get to see several on my trek.)

What makes Bhutan unique? The people here are very warm and friendly, and welcoming to tourists. That said, there are only about 700,000 of them TOTAL in the country. They learn English starting early but the mastery of the language varies widely. I'm re-learning how to talk in short, simple sentences, BUT they are so kind and generous and almost everyone has beautiful, happy smile lines. They definitely reflect the essence of Gross National Happiness.

So now you're surely asking, just what IS Gross National Happines?? Gross National Happiness (GNH) reflects Bhutan's belief that economic prosperity is only a means to achieving the "end", which is happiness. It's a deeply Buddhist culture, and GNH reflects those spiritual values. The four main pillars are 1) Equitable and sustainable socioeconomic development; 2) Preservation and promotion of the culture; 3) Conservation of the environment; and 4) Promotion of good governance. Basically, it's a Triple Bottom Line country, or at least they are trying to move in that direction. It's very apparent in everything I've seen. Love this motto and culture!!

One thing you will surely notice if and when you come here: the architecture. Every office, hospital, school, museum, post office, airport, out-building (barn or shed), store and home is built with attention to preservation of their culture through design. I was surprised to see that old and new buildings alike all mirror the Swiss tudor, colorful and detailed design style.

Creative Buddhist solution! As a largely Buddhist society Bhutan promotes equality for all sentient beings. So when the stray dogs started multiplying in the big cities (Paro and Thimphu), the government started collecting the animals, spaying or neutering them and then re-releasing them out into the streets. So unlike many other third-world countries, you don't see really mangy, permanently pregnant dogs here though there are still a large number of stray dogs. But, if the program is successful in a few years the population of them should decrease significantly. Brilliant! Take note rest-of-the-world!

While I'm still a bit confused by the economy of Bhutan (and working hard to understand it), I think that it is a really wonderful destination for anyone who wants to experience a pure, mostly un-Westernized culture. The number of tourists here is significantly lower than most other Asian countries (their goal is 100,000 per year but currently they are closer to 30,000) due certainly to the high cost of being here. Currently that cost is $200 per day, but in 2012 it will increase to $250 per day. According to the Tourism Minister for Bhutan, that price includes: all internal taxes and royalties (about $95/day goes to the government), three-star hotel accommodations, meals, all travel with a licensed tour guide, internal transportation, and camping equipment and haulage (read: horses) for trekking tours. So, when you do the math, it's not as bad as it first appears. That said, if you desire nicer accommodations or more services, it will cost more.

Trekking in Bhutan. I did the Jhomolhari Trek, which there are several versions of. I took the route that went up and over three passes (!), sleeping five nights at over 13,000 feet. We hiked an average of six hours per day over terrain that varied from quite rocky and flat to wildly steep and treacherous. Those were the not-so-good times. The good days (which were most of them!) included walking through yak pastures at high elevation, being stunned at every turn by a breath-taking new vista of a 6,000+ meter mountain, hanging prayer flags at 16,400 feet and chanting Om Mani Padme Hum with our Buddhist trekking crew. I'll be blogging more about the trekking experience on the Grand Asian Journeys' website within the next few days. Be sure to check there (and register for our newsletter!) for more details. I will be leading two trips next fall to Bhutan - including one cultural tour and a separate trekking tour - and also a trip to South India that will include ayurveda, yoga, cooking and markets. (Be sure to email me at if you want to receive more information on any of those 2011 trips!)

This was my first camping trek, and I have to say it's a much better experience than I expected, and a much nicer (assuming your sleeping bag is warm enough - mine was!) experience than lodge trekking. The food was outrageously good and included a great deal of fresh vegetables, eggs, porridge, rice and even fish. Every morning we were woken up at our tents with a cup of hot steaming tea and every night we had dessert of some kind. The best was on the last night when I was presented with a homemade (!) birthday cake which was an amazing feat consideringthe single propane stove and limited pots, ingredients and utensils! The cake was delicous, and was made quite creatively with crushed corn flakes, white bread, eggs, milk powder, hot chocolate mix and coffee. TASTY! and certainly much more so because I knew what a task it was to create. Probably the nicest birthday cake ever!!

Tomorow I depart Bhutan and spend a half-day in India before departing to South India to scout for the above-mentioned tour. I will fly back to Delhi on Friday for a certainly celebratory reunion with Gerdien! We're planning to travel for about 2.5 weeks together through Rajasthan. I'll keep you posted on all of my adventures...

With love,


Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Holy Mother of Close Calls

Or, the Day I Almost Didn't Go to Bhutan.

Getting to Bhutan today ranks up there with the most stressful days of my life. Some of you may have heard last Tuesday that my passport hadn't been returned from the India visa office. Not only hadn't it been returned but they were reporting that they had never received it despite my tracking number that told me it'd been delivered 12 days earlier. Anyway, that situation was resolved as my passport with India visa were delivered to me last Thursday, just in time for my Sunday departure.

But that was nothing.

Here's the approximate timeline of my day today:

6:00 Wake up in Delhi / pack for Bhutan
7:15 Breakfast
7:30 Pickup by my amazing India tour provider and driver
8:00 Arrive at Delhi airport - 3.25 hours early for my 11:15am flight and the first in line
8:15 Still waiting for the ticket line to move
8:20 Druk Air ticket agent tells me that my Bhutan visa and passport don't match (Visa was issued in June, got a new passport in August) and that I will not be allowed entry into Bhutan without a copy of my old passport (reflecting the old number)
8:21 Looking for a computer with internet access in the Delhi airport
8:25 Find small security office with eight men sitting in a small crowded room. Explain my situation and he gives me the famous India head bob (which indicates that it's OK for me to use his computer)
8:30 Still waiting for Gmail to load. He reboots it. It works. I thought I might have emailed myself or my mother a copy of my passport in 2008 before my last big trip.
8:40 Find out I didn't
8:42 Call friend and neighbor Michele. Despite it being bedtime and homework time for her kids, she runs down to my cabin to rouse my subletter Howard and begin the search for my actual old passport. (I honestly did not know where it was.)
8:55 I call her back and she's knocking at Howard's door, explains the situation and begins to dig through drawers, files and miscellaneous things.
9:00 She LOCATES MY PASSPORT! I tell her to urgently go find a neighbor with a scanner and email me the passport.
9:20 After watching the India security officers do something (solitaire?) on the computer and giggling to themselves he sees me staring at him and offers me to use the computer again.
9:21 Gmail issues again. Won't load. He reboots twice. Finally switches all cables to laptop computer that he had on a table behind his desk.
9:28 After much hassle, and a slow print job, I have a copy of my passport in my hands! I ask him to make another copy so that I'll have two (just in case).
9:30 I arrive at the Druk Air desk, see my agent, rush to the front of the line so that she sees me. She nods to indicate my arrival, but that's it. I wait.
9:40 Her supervisor arrives and tells me that I need two copies of the visa (I had two copies of the passport now). She sends a lackey to make the copies. He saunters away from the desk.
9:52 He arrives back at the Druk Air counter, still holding a single copy of my visa. He tells the person there that the printer is out of paper. Can he please get a sheet of paper. He leaves.
9:10 He returns, this time holding the visa and a blank sheet of paper.
9:11 My amazing agent grabbed the visa out of his hands to make the copy himself.
9:12 He returns, and we have to wait in line (again).
9:25 The very quiet agent wants her supervisor to see the copies and she's now disappeared. We wait.
9:45 The agent comes back and tells me that I need to sign a disclaimer that if the Bhutanese government doesn't let me into their country that I will not hold Druk Air liable for any costs incurred. I sign.
9:58 I get to the front of the security line, and on my form I'd written "tour operator". He decided to take the opportunity to tell me why India is the best place in all of Asia and why was I bothering with Bhutan anyway. Had I been to Rajasthan? What about Sikkim? No I said, can I please go now?
10:35 I arrive at my gate, actually 10 minutes early for the 10:45 departure.
11:35 Plane departs for Bhutan (gorgeous flight, by the way!)
12:15 I'm filling out my customs paperwork and realize that my visa only goes through Oct. 17, but my departing air ticket is not until Oct. 18. ARGH!!!\
12:16 I silently panic through the absolutely stunning landing and all the way through the customs line.
1:59 The customs officer asks me why the numbers don't match, I tell him (calmly, of course, "new passport"). Unphased, he stamps my passport and hands it to me.
2:01 My second "Pam Perry" sign in three days made me smile. I then told our Bhutan tour operator about my visa expiring before my departure, and he told me that he'd noticed and already taken care of it. Thank you BUDDHA!

So, I'm in Thimphu, Bhutan now and it's a beautiful place. I'm traveling with an exceptionally interesting group of folks from the New England area and we just shared a beer over dinner. I explained the story of my angels that have apparently taken care of me for the last 8 days, and everyone agreed that they were buying beer tonight.

Phew. I'm chalking this all up to good experience to share with other travelers so they don't have to go through what I've gone through the last eight days.

Good night~