Mt Kilimanjaro via the Lemosho Route, Part Two

Me and Joel on the summit, above the clouds, with ice penitents all round us.

Our Forth Evening

I had hoped to spend my time at camp reading my book and generally enjoying the environment, but I was too cold and uncomfortable for any of that. I spent most of my time huddled in my sleeping bag listening to podcasts and trying to sleep. On our forth night at camp, I wore two pairs of socks, four pairs of pants, eight layers on top (including my rain jacket…, anything to trap some body heat), a hat, thick gloves and hand warmers. Wearing all of those layers, I tucked myself into my sleeping bag rated -30 along with a sleeping bag liner which was supposed to add another 10 degrees of warmth, and I also tossed in a hot water bottle near my feet. I still felt chilled - and trapped underneath all of those layers. My lungs gasping in the thin air. I couldn’t wait to get to the summit so I could then head back down to warmer temps where the air was thick and lush with oxygen.

My morning view at Karanga Camp while I brushed my teeth. (13,255 ft / 4,040 m)

Day Five

Simba woke us has he did every morning with a cheerful “Jambo” and some hot coffee. We shivered as we changed, packed, and tried to eat some breakfast. We took our Dimox. After our health check (my pulse once again absent), we headed for base camp. It was just a few hours up to BARAFU CAMP (15,331 ft / 4,673 m), also known as base camp for those of us on the Lemosho, Machame, or Umbwe trails. Hiking slow and steady, we arrived around 1 pm. Weather was great most of the way and then just before we got into camp it started to hail and the fog rolled in, surrounding us once more. 

After lunch we each took our ‘body wipe showers’ with GoodWipes and quickly changed into warmer clothing, which basically meant putting on every bit of clothing we brought. We huddled in the tent trying to keep warm, crunching on Pepto tablets to keep our tummies calm, and drinking loads of water to help us with the high altitude effects. I was trying not to think too much about what was about to happen in a few hours.

At about 6:30pm we got up again for dinner, it was so cold we could see our breath and the tent had become icy on the outside. The zipper was frozen and hard to maneuver. Taking a trip to the toilet tent was extra tough in the cold, with so many layers to peel back and chattering teeth. Every little thing we did tired us out. Just getting in and out of the tent caused a shortness of breath. We struggled, with zero appetites, to eat dinner. The soups were always my favorite, flavorful and warm but it was hard to get much more than that down.

Our guides Steven and Eli came in to check on us. Their advice was to not worry about the mountain. Hakuna Matata. Polé Polé. Simba wished us a good night with his usual lala salama, my favorite Swahili phrase.

After that we got into our tent, fired up our hand warmers and tried our best to rest.

Summit Day

Simba woke us at 11pm for the final summit climb. Shivering, we peeled off some layers, prepared our packs, and tried again to eat. By 12:15 am we were on our way. The other hiker’s headlamps glowed all the way up the trail in front of us as far as we could see, switch-backing out of sight.  The terrain was mostly loose gravel but occasionally larger chunks of shale and big wobbly rocks – in other words, easy to slip in the darkness. It got steep quickly and I began to moan in discomfort. I warned everyone that I’d be vocal but not to worry about my noises. I was just uncomfortable with thin air but otherwise okay.

The steep switch-backs seemed endless and the higher we got the colder it became. I felt a little woozy and was thankful I had hiking poles to keep me balanced. Steven kept us at a fast pace, whenever we met up with another group in front of us, we’d veer off trail and sprint ahead to pass them. Each time we did this I felt like I was going to die. Joel could hear the discomfort in my voice, I couldn’t even form words, my lungs screamed. We did not any breaks until about 4am. Eli had me sit down between a couple of boulders to shield us from the wind and I couldn’t help but cry. I just needed to let it out for a moment. Two minutes later we were back on the trail. I got into meditative state, focusing my mind on my breath and putting one foot in front of the other, each step a little triumph. I thought about my friends, my family, and my colleagues, I thought “do it for them, keep moving”. Honestly though, I never had any intention of doing otherwise.

At one point Eli started to seem a little woozy and he lost the trail in the darkness. We were off trail for maybe 30 minutes or so, it felt like a long time but I was never too worried. Eventually I started seeing trash on the ground amongst the ice, fallen handwarmers and juice boxes, and I knew we had found the trail. Eli stopped to check our eyes for signs of altitude sickness, but we were fine. On we went.

Then suddenly we were somehow at Stella Point, which is the last landmark before the summit. As we crested the ridge the wind hit us hard. It was gusting up there with no place to hide and rest, so we didn’t stop. We were close to the summit now.

The terrain started to change. There was more snow and penitents had formed. I’d never seen anything like them. They were about knee high in places. The air was so thin we had to stop every couple of steps to catch our breath. The air on the summit has 50 percent less oxygen than at sea level. We tried to cover our faces to shield them from the bitting wind but immediately started to suffocate, unable to get enough oxygen through the fabrics covering our faces, we peeled it back off quickly. Steven, impatiently hurried us along. Somewhere along the way we lost Eli and only later learned that he got sick from the altitude and decided not to continue to the summit with us. We pushed on as the sun edged towards the horizon.

We got to the summit at about 6:20am, just as another small group was finishing their photos. It was freezing cold. I couldn’t feel my fingertips. We quickly handed Joel’s phone to Steven so he could take our picture at the famous summit sign just as the sun came into view. It was incredibly beautiful up there. About five years ago when hiking was new to me, I never would have believed that I’d hike it to the summit of Mt Kilimanjaro. Yet here I was at Uhuru Peak (19,341 ft / 5,895 m).

Me and Joel in front of the iconic Mt Kilimanjaro summit sign at Uhuru Peak, 6:20am, 19,341 ft / 5,895m.

Though we would have liked to linger longer, we had to start heading down. Up there the air is so thin you can only safely stay up there for about 30 minutes. It was very steep all the way back to base camp. Some points felt much like running down a steep sand dune, feet sinking into the sand.

As we got back into Barafu camp the crew handed us welcome drinks and sang us a song. The moment felt so special and surreal. We had lunch and rested for a bit before hiking another six hours or so to MWEKA CAMP (10,402 ft / 3,110 m), our camp for the night. By the end of that incredibly long day, we were beyond exhausted. We hiked a total of 14 hours that day.

But before sleep, we counted out tip money for each of the porters and guides who made it all possible for us. We had it ready for them in the morning, our last morning together. After a breakfast of fries (we ate lot of fries on this hike), we packed and gathered for our final day on the trail which began with another song from our team and words of thanks from us. We never could have done it without them.

Me and Joel with our full team from Karibu Adventure on our last morning together. .

Mt Kilimanjaro via the Lemosho Route, Part One

Eli, our assistant guide, and me close behind on the trail with Mt Kilimanjaro looming in the background.

Eli, our assistant guide, and me close behind on the trail with Mt Kilimanjaro looming in the background.

Any local will tell you that the trick to summiting Kili is to go polé polé, which means slowly in Swahili. Going slowly helps the body adjust to the altitude. Choosing a longer trail, like Lemosho, also ensures a slower accent and a better chance at reaching the summit. The trail started out steeper than we thought it would and right away it was polé polé with Eli, our assistant guide. I don’t think I’ve ever hiked so slowly but over the next few days I’d come to be extremely thankful of his slow pace. As we hiked through lush rainforest, we saw two kinds of monkeys, the blue monkey and the black-and-white colobus (they looked similar to skunks but had long bushy white tails). Even though we were making good time, our eleven porters quickly passed us with all of the gear. We ate their dust.

Our porters, lining up to get the gear weighed before starting the hike. Each porter may carry up to 32 lbs (15 kg).

It only took us about two hours to reach the MTI MKUBWA CAMP (9,292 ft / 2,820m). Our tent was already set up and dinner was being prepped. We were happy to see that our tent was relatively large and had a sleeping area and separate dinning area. There were lots of colobuses in the trees. It already seemed too cold. We drank hot cocoa and took a short walk around camp. After dinner Steven, our lead guide, briefed us on the next day and we settled in for our first night on the trail.

Day Two

We were woken early the next morning by Simba, our lead porter, bearing hot coffee and a smile. Incase you were wondering, that’s not his real name – he’s just smart and uses it with tourists so they remember it easily. He soon became one of our favorite people on the trail. We quickly dressed, had breakfast (avocado toast!), and headed out with Steven in the lead. He set a faster pace than Eli, I struggled to keep up and still have time for photos. This was a big hiking day, lots of steep uphill climbs. Steven ran a tight ship and didn’t like to stop for breaks, I found myself calling out meekly for an occasional water break. They had lectured us on the importance of hydration and required us each to carry three liters of water. Before long we were up in the clouds and it was so beautiful seeing the mist move through the mountains.

The ground leveled out as we headed into Shira Camp One where our porters had set up our tent for lunch. It was a welcomed refuge from the wind slicing through the valley. We settled in and took our second dose of Dimox for the day. I was also relieved to see the bathroom tent being set up, so fancy.

Joel and Steven, heading across Shira Valley to our camp for the night.

Eli, waving as we depart from Shira Camp One, where we had our lunch on day two.

Eli, waving as we depart from Shira Camp One, where we had our lunch on day two.

After lunch it was an easy stroll for a couple hours through the Shira Valley to our camp for the night, SHIRA CAMP TWO (12,631 ft / 3,850m). Along the way, Eli was happy to walk with me, pointing out flowers and plants while I snapped photos. Once at camp we were greeted with a warm “Jambo!” from Simba who helped us with our day packs and offered us hot towels to clean the dust from our hands and faces.

Day Three

The next day was an important one, an acclimatization hike up to the Lava Tower for a high altitude lunch at 15,190ft (4,630m). It was slow going, not steep just a slow steady incline over a fairly barren landscape of alpine desert. I could really feel the altitude. When moving it was a near constant feeling of suffocation, an inability to suck in enough oxygen into my lungs, which felt uncomfortably tight. Occasionally I grappled with control over my mind so as to not panic. For me it was slow and steady steps (polé polé), and calm breaths all the way to our lunch spot – which was thus far the highest point I’d ever hiked to. Once up there I felt much better and had energy to explore while they prepared lunch. My tummy also was not feeling great, but I pushed through it and munched on some Pepto tablets (I highly recommend packing these). Neither of us had much of an appetite.

Me, really small next to our tent on our lunch break at the Lava Tower 15,190ft (4,630m).

Other hikers on the trail heading into Barranco Camp surrounded by giant groundsel trees. This particular tree is only found on Mt Kilimanjaro and only above about 14,000 ft.

From there it was a long way down into a cloud covered BARRANCO CAMP (12,795 ft / 3,900m) where we settled in for the night. We were cold, tired and suffering from bad headaches and nausea due to our afternoon at 15,190 ft. Steven and Eli assured us what we were feeling was completely normal and encouraged us to rest, drink a lot of water, and eat – however eating was the last thing we felt like doing. After dinner and our nightly briefing on the next day, we washed up using GoodWipes (which I also highly recommend!) and changed into our warmer clothing for bed. Simba wished us sweet dreams in Swahili, “lala salama”.

Day Four

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The next morning, I layered up and went outside to brush my teeth. I was surprised to find the clouds had parted to reveal the summit of Mt Kili towering above us. I stared in awe, unable to believe we’d be at the top in just a few days. It was stunning and inspiring. I felt strong. Until I glanced to the right and saw tiny flashes of color along the cliff face. I took a closer look and realized it was a line of tiny hikers scaling the cliff up into the clouds. It was the Barranco Wall I’d read about, but it seemed much bigger than I though it would be. Panic started to seep in. I tried to keep it cool, crack some jokes, etc. Deep breaths, deep breaths… It wasn’t a technical climb, just a steep scramble… with a severe drop off… and with the wind, and the slippery dew, and altitude making me feel woozy… I was worried. All of my confidence melted away and my heart started racing. Just then Steven showed up to do our morning health check. Most mornings the oximeter couldn’t read my levels at all, but this morning with my heart pounding, it was off the charts. I looked at Steven, and said, “I’m really nervous.” Joel’s like “Yeah, she’s really nervous about the wall.” Steven, with the poorest bedside manner, looked at my pulse said “Yep, you are really nervous” and walked out of the tent. I’d be receiving no words of encouragement from him.

It’s true what I’d heard, that hiking Kilimanjaro is just as much of a mental challenge as it is a physical one. Once we started up the wall I realized I was fine. We had to go single file, so the pace was extra slow which allowed me to keep my breath comfortable. Soon I was having fun scrambling up, using all of my limbs, and occasionally pausing to view the camp far below through the shifting clouds. Eventually we were enveloped in thick fog, visibility was low adding to the eerie beauty of the place. The porters and other hikers in front of us, faded to silhouettes. It took us a little over an hour to get to the top, and in the end it was one of the most fun parts of the entire seven day hike. Mind over matter, clearly.

The rest of the day was some up and down hiking through the mist. Until we reached our next camp, KARANGA (13,255 ft / 4,040 m). The fog was so thick we could barely see in front of us.

 We had a late lunch and then retired to our tent to rest. Just changing our clothing at that altitude was difficult and we had to pause in between layers to catch our breath. It was very cold, despite all of my layers I was still shivering, which didn’t bode well for the next night at even higher elevation.

To be continued…

Click here to read part two.

Tanzania! Mt Kilimanjaro, a safari, and a little bit of Zanzibar

Very soon we'll be taking off for Tanzania.

It's been about 10 months since I first began digging into the planning for this trip. First it was deciding which route to take up Mt Kilimanjaro. There are 7 established routes, each with some pros and cons. We ultimately decided on the Lemosho route. It's one of the longer routes, 7 or 8 days (we picked 7), on the mountain. The scenery is supposed to be spectacular and the longer route will give us extra time to acclimate to the high altitude.

Hiking Kilimanjaro doesn't require any technical ability, but still something like 50 percent of people who attempt the hike do not summit. This is mostly due to the high altitude and how well the body handles the lack of oxygen. Through some research I've learned some key things that can help your body adjust. Going slowly is a big one which is why we picked the Lemosho route - it would suck to go so far and not make it to the summit - and I also picked up a prescription for Acetazolamide, commonly referred to as Diamox. The drug helps prevent altitude sickness. I opted not to take it for the Inca Trail, but Mt Kilimanjaro is considerably higher at 19,341 ft (5,895m). By contrast, the highest point on the Inca trail is 13,828 ft (4,215m) and we just passed through it, on Kili we'll be well over 13,000 ft for a considerable amount of time. My body definitely felt the altitude on the Inca Trail. So let's just say, this time I'm not fooling around - hand me the drugs. 

After we picked our route, it was an agonizing few months sifting through all the various tour companies to book the hike and safari. Like the Inca Trail, Mt Kilimanjaro is highly regulated by the government and you have to hike with a registered guide and team of porters. The market is flooded with companies, prices vary wildly, some people warned of fake reviews on sites like Trip Advisor, some companies were better for the hike, others were better for the safari, some local companies, and some foreign. We searched high and low, asked for advice and recommendations from friends and family, and vetted multiple companies. Ultimately we booked with two different tour operators, we just couldn't find one we liked that specialized in both the hike and safari that remained within our price point. 

We booked the hike through Karibu Adventures. They are a a Tanzanian company which means all our money will go towards supporting the locals, which was important to us. They have high safety standards (clearly important), good reviews, over 10 years of experience, and were the right price. However, they did not seem as experienced for the safari and did not offer the type of mid level accommodations we were looking for - many safari companies offered either a really low budget public campground option or a super lux option, neither of which worked for us.

Ultimately, we booked a 5 day safari with Good Earth Tours. They consider themselves to be one of the most ethically-responsible tour operators in East Africa and expressly state the importance of animal welfare on their site, which is something that was really important to us for a safari tour operator. They also offered the mid level accommodations we were looking for and came personally recommended from a family member who did a safari with them a few years ago. Choosing to book with two different tour companies created a bit more logistics to sort out but ultimately worth it for us. 

After our 18 hours onboard two airplanes we'll arrive in at the Kilimanjaro Airport and have one day in Moshi before starting our 7 day Kilimanjaro hike via the Lemosho route. After the hike we'll spend a much needed night in a hotel in Moshi (we'll be looking forward to a bed and showers by this point!). Then we'll head to Arusha, about an hour away. We'll have a day to recoup and then we start our 5 day safari. We'll head to Tarangire, the Serengeti, and the Ngorongoro Crater. After summiting the world's tallest freestanding mountain (hopefully) and starring in awe at epic wild animals (most likely), we'll fly over to Zanzibar to check out Stone Town and enjoy a little R&R by the beach. 

Put me on the plane. 

Road-Tripping in Southern Cambodia

Wild encounters on the backroads of Cambodia 

Wild encounters on the backroads of Cambodia 

In Kampot we decided to embrace local culture and overcome our fears by renting a moto. Fortunately, we could rent one from our hotel for only $5 USD a day.

Despite Joel expressing to the hotel management that he knew basically nothing about how to drive a moto, we received keys, helmets, and very little instruction. It was a bumpy start. Learning to ride a moto on a muddy dirt road isn’t the easiest. Joel practiced by himself first, then I said a little prayer and climbed aboard behind him. It wasn’t long before we got the hang of it and headed into town for dinner at Simple Things. We navigated some busy traffic circles along the way and purchased gas from a barefoot roadside attendant - who was otherwise, oddly, well dressed.

The next morning we booked a stand-up paddle board tour with SUP Asia. It was a nice day to be on the water and check out the mangrove reforestation project. I’ll need a few more lessons though before I can master the “stand up” aspect of paddle boarding!

A drone shot of us paddling down the river, we're the two over on the left. 

A drone shot of us nearing the end of our tour, coming out of the river into the sea, we're very tiny on the lower left of the image. 

Afterwards we decided to test our moto road skills up the steep, winding, road to Bokor Hill Station atop Bokor Mountain. It was a gorgeous ride up through the clouds. I was excited to explore the abandoned French Colonial buildings at the top and was hoping for some great photos. However, just as we were arriving it started to pour. We took refuge in a old church and hoped it would pass. It didn't. So we decided to head back down stopping at one more old building in route. Despite the rain, we had a great time and it was good practice driving the moto in those conditions.

Inside the old church where we took refuge from the rain. 

Road Trip from Kampot to Kep

The next day we were back on the moto again for a road trip from Kampot to Kep, making a few stops along the way. If driving directly there it's about 19 miles but we decided on a slower, more scenic route. Much of our drive was on some lovely village roads. On a moto you can really take in the sights and smells of your surroundings - which I thoroughly enjoyed.

Our first stop was Phnom Chhnork, a Hindu cave temple built in the 7th century. The main chamber was huge. Joel opted to venture further. With two little girls from the nearby village as his guides, he headed into the dark, damp, narrow passages. I thought to myself, “no thanks” and happily headed back to the entrance to await their reemergence. Joel had a blast and tipped his guides well. Before hitting the road we tried to have a snack and were quickly joined by the monkeys who wanted some too. One of them even attempted to hijack our moto!

Kampot is world famous for pepper, so our next destination was the Sothy’s Pepper Farm. An, admittedly, ineffectual tour guide showed us around and we learned all about peppercorns. Their peppercorns are actually sorted by hand which I imagine would take a very long time!

From there we headed into Kep to meet a friend for coffee and lunch at the Kep Sailing Club. Before heading back to Kampot we made sure to take some photos of the famous giant Kep Crab.

That evening we reluctantly returned our little moto after a fun few days together and boarded a bus for Phnom Penh - a very different mode of transport! 

Until next time! 

Until next time! 

 

 

Cambodia!

Unlike most of my trips, we put this one together relatively quickly. We only just solidified our plans and we depart in less than two weeks.

Some people were surprised to hear that we’ll be spending our full two week vacation in Cambodia. While the temptation to fit in a neighboring country is strong, I also love the idea of giving Cambodia our full attention.

While we tried hard to fit in some time at an elephant sanctuary, it unfortunately wasn’t in the cards for this trip. They were either too remote, weren’t a true sanctuary, or required too long of a stay to be feasible. I’ll miss them, I have such fond memories of my time at the Elephant Nature Park during a 2014 trip to Thailand.   

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On my previous trip to the region I popped into Siem Reap for a just a couple days to see the temples. Having been before, however briefly, takes some of the edge off. I’m less concerned about fitting everything in and instead am looking forward to a much more relaxed pace. It will be nice to be there for a much longer stretch.

After a long flight, with a brief layover in Guangzhou China, we’ll arrive Siem Reap around 7pm local time. We’ll have the evening to recoup and adjust to the new time zone. Then in the morning we’ll be hitting it hard with a full day of temple exploration at Angkor Wat. However, I’m certain we’ll find time for massages once we’re back in town that evening - we’ll need it! Day two is another temple day, and on one of these days we’ll aim to catch the famous sunrise over Angkor Wat. When I was in Siem Reap back in 2014 the sunrise left a lot to be desired, it was more like a gradual lightening of an overcast sky. Hopefully this time we’ll have more luck. The following day we’ll explore in and around town, and shopping and kitschy mini golf might also be on the menu, along with some more r&r.

The next day we plan to head over to Banteay Srei for a homestay with a local family, we’re not quite sure what to expect but it will be an adventure. After that, we’ll make our way back to Siem Reap to catch a flight and subsequent ferry ride over to Koh Rong Sanloem for a few glorious days relaxing in a beachfront bungalow.

From there it’s another ferry ride back to the mainland and a short bus ride over to Kampot. We’ve got what sounds like an excellent little riverside bungalow booked over there. We plan to have some fun on the river with a stand-up paddle board tour and to explore the town for a couple days before heading up to Phnom Penh. 

We’ll be in Phnom Penh for a long weekend, meeting up with friends before flying back home. I can't wait! 

 

 

Biggest Bali Challenge: Deciding Where to Stay

Enjoying the pool at Calma Ubud

The hardest thing about traveling in Bali is deciding where to stay - there are so many amazing options! Bali was just a stop on a two week trip throughout Indonesia, but I could easily have spent my whole two weeks just staying in various places on the island. One of my goals was to stay in treehouse, and while that didn’t happen (this time) we did manage to find other unusual and luxurious options.

Our first stop was the Calma Ubud just outside of Ubud's city center. It was peaceful and beautiful, the infinity pool was a highlight with its view of the rice paddies. The small hotel bar and restaurant were also located poolside. Our booking came with free breakfast, that included fresh watermelon juice – yum! They also easily accommodated my vegan travel companions.

The room itself was located on the second floor of one of the buildings. It was spacious and light-filled. Instead of numbers, all of the rooms are given a Balinese name, ours was hard for us to pronounce, which made for some funny and awkward exchanges with the staff when they asked which room we were in…

We arranged taxis for day trips with the front desk and it was also easy to find a taxi back from town in the evenings after dinner for around 50,000 rp (less than $4 usd).

I was in heaven 

After Ubud we headed to the Shunyata Villas in Seraya, a tiny town on the east coast. This place was incredible. Owned by a German couple and staffed by locals. It’s a small place, only three fully constructed villas and they were currently building two more. Neither of the other two villas were booked when we were there, so aside of the staff, we had the whole property to ourselves. After being so busy earlier in our trip we were ready to relax, and this was the perfect place to do it in. From our bedroom, double doors looked out onto a deck and massive infinity pool with views of the ocean and Lombok beyond. You could hear the waves crashing against the cliffs below and it was heaven.  

We also had a separate building next to the pool that housed a living and dining area long with a kitchenette, second bed, and second bathroom. Off of the master bedroom we also had a wardrobe and a large semi open-air bathroom with an awesome shower and bathtub.

The villa was so amazing we barely left, we had all of our meals served in our private dining area instead of the main dining room at the opposite end of the property. Breakfast was huge and both lunch and dinner were three course meals – yes they accommodated our dietary needs. There was also a housekeeping team that kept the rooms tidy and provided turndown service in the evenings. Everyone on staff referred to me as “Madam” which felt odd and lovely at the same time.

Our infinity pool doubled as a two-tier waterfall with steps beside it leading down to a massage tent and then the rest of the property beyond. We couldn’t resist getting Balinese massages.

The rest of the property was equally amazing, another large pool that would normally be shared by all guests, but because we were the only ones we also had that to ourselves. Have I mentioned how incredible it was?

Around the corner from the pool there were some steps leading down to the waterfront. It was not a place to swim but it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. The shoreline was full of large stones, smooth and round from the ocean waves. When the waves hit the shore, the rocks would move and clink together making an unusual sound that’s hard to describe. A perfect spot for mediation.

We stayed here for two unforgettable nights but I’ll be dreaming of it for years to come. 

Relaxing in our private beach bubble

From there it was on to what is possibly the most unusual place I’ve never stayed, an inflatable bubble on the beach, booked via Airbnb. Located on the southernmost coast of Bali, there wasn’t much around, a couple of villas high on the cliffs and four bubbles on the beach which formed the Bubble Hotel. We stored everything we didn’t need in a garage space at the villas and then hiked down to the beach with only our necessities for the evening and following day.

The hike down to our bubble was longer and more intense than we thought it would be, down a very steep cliff to the beach and then along the beach for quite awhile before arriving at our bubble, which incidentally was the furthest away and thus the most secluded. When we first arrived, it was low tide so the beach wasn’t as picturesque as we’d imaged nor was our site as green as the Airbnb photos (probably because of the season). The only other noticeable difference was the trash washing up on the beach, which is a well-known problem plaguing the entire country – and the world. The bubble was outfitted with an air mattress (yes, it did deflate by morning), a portable air conditioner, a lantern, and LED lights. One unfortunate thing is that the machine keeping the bubble inflated and air circulating was quite loud and high pitched, so I had to use earplugs to sleep.

There was hardly anyone else round, it was so peaceful. They had a little campfire area set up for us along with lounge chairs. Tucked into the bushes there was a salt water shower and a - believe it or not - a standard toilet that flushed, the TP was thoughtfully placed inside a plastic bin, safe from bugs. We were able to pre-order dinner and breakfast (unfortunately, they were less able to accommodate vegan options but they had plenty of vegetarian choices). We also pre-ordered a kite that Joel had some fun with on the beach. We amused ourselves by taking silly photos in and around our bubble. Then the evening was all about peace, tranquility, the sound of the waves, and the stars above.  

All and all, I absolutely loved each of these places and I look forward to returning to Bali someday to see what other amazing accommodations we can find - though it will be hard to narrow it down. For those reading this and planning a trip to Bali, I hope this helps you with your search! 

Jerusalem's Old Town, One of the Most Interesting Places I've Been

A religious nexus for numerous people all over the world, the city has a certain energy as a result.  So many devout people all converging in one location, so much emotion in the air, you can feel it and get swept up within it – Jerusalem Syndrome, I mean how many cities are said to cause a mental condition in those that visit? It’s remarkable and fascinating, even for someone like me who is not particularly religious, or maybe it’s because of that…. I’m also naturally curious about people who think, believe, and behave differently than I do. As a result, I enjoyed and experienced the various religious sites equally.

While in the Middle East I also thought a lot about gender roles and it made me curious to know more about the women I saw there, in their various forms of dress. It was striking to see Jewish women praying so fervently in a cramped passageway during our touristy Western Wall Tunnel tour, one woman with an infant strapped to her chest and her prayer book pressed to her face. 

Our visit was, unintentionally, timed perfectly with President Trump’s visit and the 50th anniversary of Jerusalem Day. In a city where emotions always are running high, celebrations and protests took it up a notch. It’s a serious city, and depending on who you ask, an occupied territory. Soldiers are everywhere, armed and ready. It took a bit to get used to, flipping through my Lonely Planet while sidestepping packs of 20-somethings with machine guns. We visited the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Noble Sanctuary compound on Jerusalem Day. Waiting in line near the Western Wall to get into the Muslim site was an extremely tense experience. Many Israeli youth were also attempting to enter with their flags, aggressively pushing and cutting the lines. There was a heavy police presence, complete with riot gear. But once we walked past all of them and were allowed inside, I was stuck by the tranquility that existed within, birds chirping, leaves rustling... This was just two months before the shooting that caused Israel to shut down access to the mosque, resulting in large protests.

A quite moment inside the Chapel of Saint Helena at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, built upon the site identified as the location of the crucifixion of Jesus. 

The city houses some of the holiest, if not the holiest, sites for Christians, Jews, and Muslims. When I think of religion and faith some opposing things come to mind: self-righteousness, oppression, war… but also acceptance, community, and love. A place of worship - whether a church, mosque, or temple – all lend a similar feeling of peace, serenity, and safety. You can find those places within Jerusalem, little sanctuaries where you can feel calm and comforted. Yet the city, as a whole, feels completely the opposite. It resulted in a sensation I hadn’t quite experienced yet in my worldly travels, an underlying feeling of unease, always a little on edge and anxious. For me, this emotional juxtaposition was intriguing and alluring. All of this and more, made Jerusalem one of the most interesting places I’ve ever visited. 

In front of the Dome of the Rock at the Noble Sanctuary compound in Jerusalem. 

In front of the Dome of the Rock at the Noble Sanctuary compound in Jerusalem. 

Orangutans & Boating in Borneo

An orangutan in Tanjung Puting National Park. 

After a seemingly endless journey at times (Flights: NYC > Tokyo > Jakarta > Pangkalan Bun = about 22 hours in flight, plus additional time spent at the airports) we finally arrived in Kumai, Kalimantan to begin our journey upriver to view orangutans in the forests of Borneo. 

As we approached Kumai we began to see many multi-story, grey, windowless buildings towering over the smaller village homes and shops. Our guide informed us that the buildings were owned by Chinese entrepreneurs and were essentially swallow nest farms. The nests, produced from the saliva of the birds, is a Chinese delicacy and the farms have taken over the town - much to the dismay of many locals. The birds are loud, the poop profuse, and the buildings unsightly (some were painted with fake windows in an failed attempt to blend into the surroundings).

Kumai from the water, swallow nest buildings towering over the smaller local homes and businesses.

We booked our tour through Orangutan Days. They were incredibly accommodating and understanding when we made a mistake with our booking. They were quick to respond and offered a perfect solution. Our guide, Iim, grew up in the area, was passionate about orangutans, and had worked at Camp Leakey for many years. He spoke often and longingly about a desire to return to work there once his children are older. 

A Klotok

We spent two days and nights aboard a Klotok, a traditional two-story, wooden boat. The lower level included the crew quarters, the kitchen, and a small rustic bathroom with a western style toilet and a simple shower utilizing water from a barrel on the deck above. The second level was our main ‘living’ space, with a covered roof but otherwise open to the elements and allowing for a great view and comfortable breeze. We had wooden lounge chairs on the bow, rattan chairs on a third-level seating area at the stern and in the middle was a dinning table and two beds. Onboard with us we had our guide, two boatmen, and a female cook who made excellent vegan food for us throughout the trip. Klotok’s move at a leisurely pace, making the cruise portion of the tour an excellent way to get into vacation mode and it was trip highlight for us overall. 

It was a fun experience from the start, the port was small and many boats were docked to together so we had to climb through three or four other boats before arriving at ours. All of the boats were artful and slightly different from one another. We began our journey up the Kumai River with the Tanjung Puting National Park on our right. The landscape slowly changed from mangroves and leafy palms to tall trees. Once among the tall trees it wasn’t long before we spotted large families of proboscis monkeys in the trees. They live in families of 30 or 40 and are only native to Borneo. Proboscis monkeys are medium sized, with light reddish brown fur and really large funny noses. It was really cool to watch them move and jump through the trees, there were quite a few babies as well. We saw them frequently throughout our journey especially in the mornings and evenings. 

After lazily boating for a few hours we arrived at our first stop, the research center of Tanjung Harapan. We popped into their tiny museum (which could use a serious update) to learn about the work they do and then hung out for a bit watching the locals sort through a boat load of bananas and sugarcane for the orangutans.

From there we headed into the forest for the 3pm feeding. After a short walk we suddenly heard a loud crashing ahead that sounded like trees falling down. Looking up we saw some tree tops swaying wildly, a large male orangutan was on his way to the feeding area. Orangutans are the largest tree-dwelling animals on earth - so you hear them when they are coming! All of us tourists were quietly gathering on benches about 20 yards away from the feeding platform, pointing and whispering and snapping our cameras. Once the food arrived we saw about three or four additional female orangutans come and go, each with a baby or young child in tow. It was fascinating to watch them appear distantly in the tree tops. They’d slowly sway their way over to the platform, climb down, grab as many bananas as then could and then usually climb back up to dine. The babies and children almost always clinging to their moms. Their movements so human and alien all at the same time. 

Unlike other primates, orangutans are largely solitary. However, they have a very intense relationship between mother and child. The mom will carry her child with her for the first five or six years of their life, and she is their constant companion for another couple of years before they start to explore the world on their own. Because of this the birth rates are low - about once every eight to ten years. 

That evening we went on a short night walk through the forest, spotting large scary looking tarantulas, poisonous snakes, glowing mushrooms, and other frightening creatures before running (just kidding) back to the boat for dinner. When we arrived back at the boat we found that the crew had arranged our sleeping area with fresh sheets and a large mosquito net. We fell asleep listening to the wild sounds of the forest - quite a chorus! 

We got an early start the next day, stopping briefly at the tiny Sekonyer village across the river. It seemed like an interesting place, I wish I had a bit more time to explore it. Then we were on our way boating further upriver to Pondok Tanggui for their 9am feeding. Despite the rain, we still got to see a few orangutans have their daily fruit snack. Lots of other tourists were also in attendance, even more than the day before - everyone jostling for a photo and dodging rain drops.

After that we were back on the boat for a few more hours, up to the Sekonyer River with it’s black water, eventually arriving at Camp Leakey. We stopped by their museum/info center, which felt nearly as out dated as the one at Tanjung Harapan. It was really lacking information on what the camp is currently doing and most importantly how visitors can help orangutans. It seemed like a failed opportunity to raise awareness (and collect donations) on important issues threatening orangutans today - like palm oil farming.

From there we followed our guide deeper into the woods towards the feeding area. On the way there we spotted a gibbon swinging and gliding his way to the platform as well. It was so cool to watch, like something out of a cartoon fairytale. I found his movements mesmerizing. I could have easily spent the better part of a day following him around. 

Again, no male orangutans came to this one, but a few ladies with their babies and one with an older child who was starting to venture further and further away from mom - much to her seeming frustration at times. One mom came in from behind us with her baby clinging to her side. With a lack of crowd control, she soon found herself nearly surrounded by thoughtless people welding their iPhones and gro-pros desperate for photos of her. Eventually, with what looked like real reluctance, she had to come down and walk on the benches in the viewing area in order to reach the feeding platform. She seemed a bit stressed - or maybe I am just projecting my own emotions onto her - but eventually she and her little one made it safely and began to munch on bananas. Meanwhile a large wild pig roamed around under the platform and trees, waiting for dropped banana peels to rain down.

On our way back to the boat we came upon an elderly orangutan that our guide recognized as Ahmed. Iim explained that Ahmed has cataracts and can't see very well. He’s also an ex-captive orangutan and though he can roam anywhere he wants in the forest, he’s comfortable around people and seemed content to sit trailside. We gave him a good couple yards of space, but sat with him for a moment before another group caught up to us. It felt special to be so close, I wish we could have sat with him a little longer.

Joel and I with Ahmed. 

Back on the boat we had another long ride back down river. We spent the time relaxing, reading our books and monkey spotting. We also saw a horn billed bird and very large bats. The sun began to set and it was a very magical magic hour, puttering along on our artful wooden boat, waving at monkeys as the sky turned pink and gold.

The sunsetting on our last night on the river.

Trekking: Blue Fire at the Ijen Crater

The edge of the Ijen Crater at dawn. 

The edge of the Ijen Crater at dawn. 

Rising wearily from our beds as our alarm went off at 12:15am, we quickly dressed, collected our bags, and headed to meet our guide in the parking lot. Soon we were asleep again in the car as we made our way towards the Ijen Crater. Arriving about an hour and 15 minutes later, we gathered ourselves together and began the hike up. We had no real sense of how intense the hike would be, we were unable to get a clear answer out of our guide and the descriptions we’d read online months earlier were vague. But let me tell you, it was steep. Very steep. Admittedly I've no gym membership to speak of, but I’m a seasoned hiker and I was struggling up the steep pathway. It was also very dark and only our guide had a headlamp. That’s not to say we were alone, there were tons of other people there with us. It was a holiday weekend in Java and there were loads of locals as well as international tourists. We often had to bob and weave our way through the throngs on our way up.

The higher we got the stronger the sulfur smell. Breathing heavily (I have mild asthma and of course the hike is not recommended for anyone with asthma), the back of my throat could feel it in the air - as could my lungs. A tip for anyone thinking of going here, it gets chilly so bring a hat, gloves, and a warm layer - also, the sulfur smell can be tough to get out of fabric. Since the hike I’ve washed the clothing twice and still smell a lingering tinge of sulfur. 

More than once, our guide told us it would flatten out around the next bend. So, I’d excitedly trudge my way to the curve ready for sweet relief, only to find yet another steep hill. All and all, the hike up only took around 1.5 - 2 hours- but with about 6,000 feet of elevation gain.

As we got closer to the crater our guide handed us our gas masks. I’ve done a lot of things, but never have I ever hiked with a gas mask. If felt so bizarre but also increasingly necessary as the drifting puffs of sulfur gas made it harder to breath regularly. 

It was still quite dark but also very crowded as we approached the rim. It was decision time, to hike down into the crater or not… We’d been told it was a tough hike down on a steep narrow path with a drop off on one side, slippery with loose rocks and lots of people moving in both directions - not to mention puffs of sulfur gas occasionally blowing into your face. On average the Ijen Crater gets about 300 visitors each morning, with this being a holiday weekend it could have been 10 times this amount. There were a lot of people. At the start of the pathway down, impatient people ready seemed to be pushing and throwing elbows, caught in an anxiety inducing bottle neck. My friend firmly opted out. I begrudgingly agreed to accompany my boyfriend and guide down into the cater. In the end, I’m glad I did. 

A view of the pathway down into the crater

A view of the pathway down into the crater

The pathway wasn't as scary as it had been described and the overall pace was slow and calm in comparison to the madness at the start. Our guide proved to be excellent at crowd control and comfortably told all others what to do, yelling “Up stop! Up stop!” to folks trying to climb out and thus blocking our way down. With equal ease and force at other intervals, he told all of us heading down when to start and stop as well, so we could make way for those going in the opposite direction. 

Ijen is an active sulfur mine. Our guide also craftily (and falsely on many occasion) shouted at those in front that a miner was trying to pass so they’d step to the side and let us pass. When miners did actually pass us, they were carrying around 60 kilos of sulfur in baskets on their shoulders, wearing flimsy flip flops and no gas masks - not an easy job. I quickly, and respectfully, scuttled out of their way whenever one came near. 

A miner's baskets, full of sulfur. 

A miner's baskets, full of sulfur. 

As we approached the bottom, the wind shifted and the infamous blue flame appeared through the puffs of sulfur gas. It really was pretty cool looking. A quick google informed me that the blue fire is ignited sulfur gas with a temperature of over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. With the wind on our side we got close enough to see a miner at work, chipping away at the yellow sulfur in order to fill his basket for the trek back up.

Our guide warned us that if the wind shifted in our direction we could be temporarily blinded by the fumes if we didn’t shield our eyes properly - we didn't stick around to test that theory. After a short visit and some photos (the battery on my Canon dslr was, embarrassingly, dead so all I have to show for my efforts are iPhone photos) we turned around to climb back out as the sun began to rise. 

An hour and 45 minutes later, back at the top we reconvened with my friend and waited for the sulfur puffs to clear just long enough for us to get a glimpse of the beautiful (and very acidic) aqua lake filling the crater below, beside the mine. It was breathtakingly beautiful, worth the climb and the wait. Amazingly, our guide had tried to rush us back down the mountain before we saw the lake. He seemed eager to be done with us, which was a frustration for me. Nevertheless, I enjoyed my experience and would highly recommended the hike. The terrain was so different from anything I'd ever experienced before and the view spectacular. Though tough on the knees, the hike back down the volcano to the parking lot was also beautiful, with the sun still low in the sky, filtering softly through the mist

 

 

Indonesia Planning

We’re embarking on our Indonesia trip! Planning this one was a bit daunting, Indonesia is a large country with 17,000 islands to choose from - and of course, we only have two weeks to explore them. After a few months of planning and coordinating, this is what we’ll be up to:

After a very long flight, we’ll arrive in Jakarta and hop on yet another flight to Kalimantan on the island of Borneo. There we’ll meet our guide at the airport and immediately embark upon a two night / two day tour into Tanjung Puting National Park to visit with some ex-captive orangutans who now live freely within the national park. We’ll be staying aboard a small, two-story, wooden boat called a Klotok. On the boat we should have a nice bed, small rustic bathroom, a cook, crew, and a great view. 

From there we’ll make our way to Yogyakarta where we’ll spend a few days absorbing the fun artsy culture and exploring the ancient temples of Borobudur and Prambanan near the city.

Then it’s a quick flight over to Surabaya where we’ll be picked up by another guide around 11pm. We’ll be driven for a few hours to Mt Bromo, a volcano and vast crater.  We’ll hike to reach the summit by sunrise. The next night we’ll do something similar, we’ll leave our hotel around 1am (who needs sleep?! Not us!) drive for a bit and then start hiking up the Ijen Crater, an active sulfur mine known for it’s blue flame. Hopefully, if the weather is on our side, we’ll get to see the blue flames through the puffs of sulfur as we don gas masks and hike down into the crater with local miners. It should make for a intense and hopefully enjoyable experience!

Next we’ll head to Ubud, Bali. We’ll have a relaxing multi night stay in the same hotel while we explore Ubud for a few days. I’m excited to experience a place I've heard so much about! I can't wait for the rice terraces, I'm so curious to see what they’ll look like this time of year. After getting our cultural fill in Ubud we’ll head off to the coast for an even more relaxing couple of nights in our resort room with it’s own private infinity pool (I may never want to leave). Our last night in Bali will be in adventure, we’ve rented a “Bubble” from Airbnb on a secluded stretch of beach. The bubble looks a bit like a clear inflatable igloo perched on a grassy rise next to the beach. The stars should be pretty amazing at night.

From there we’ll begin the long journey back home, hopefully after feeling pretty fulfilled with all of our adventures here in Indonesia.