Monday, October 01, 2007

I'm stoked to have another one of my travel humor stories in the newest Travelers' Tales book, More Sand In My Bra. "Oh, The Places She Will Go," will be appearing along with stories by comedian Ellen Degeneres and chic-lit author Suzanne Schlosberg (The Curse of the Single Table). If you've ever been amused and frustrated by the stereotypical Yankee ignorance of world geography, then you'll get a kick out of "Oh, The Places She Will Go." Word has it that Ellen Degeneres' story is almost as witty as mine and that her agent is fast on my heels. ;-)

Edited by Jennifer Leo and Julia Weiler, More Sand In My Bra is another satirical collection of Ms.Adventures from the road (a follow-up to their last anthologies, What Color Is Your Jockstrap?...I'm not even kidding about the title). It you're not familiar with Travelers Tales, they're one of the largest travel anthology book publishers in the U.S.A. Their humor series, written largely by women, has become a bread and butter, best-selling series. You can find many of their titles in the narrative travel section of your local bookstore. More Sand In My Bra makes for quick, entertaining reading on your holiday trip home. And at $14.95 it's also the perfect birthday gift for your free-spirited, wandering friends and paramours...or at least, those of your loved ones dreaming of mai tais and bad sex with strangers in far away lands...

If you order it (of course, try to buy at your locally-owned bookstore first), please remember to post a review on Thanks again and happy October reading!

  • Order More Sand In My Bra on Amazon
  • Tuesday, June 26, 2007

    Latest News: American Media-Magnate Schmoozing with Chinese Government
    Interesting tidbit on the direction that American media is going in China. Rupert Murdoch, mega-media magnate and owner of Fox News, is schmoozing with the Chinese government and communist officials (who are notorious for oppressing the media) in hopes of building an advantageous business relationship. Many Chinese journalists are concerned this bodes poorly for the future of journalism if Murdoch continues to put personal financial interests over his responsibility to uphold the highest ethics in journalism.
    Check out the article which appeared today:

  • New York Times Article
  • Friday, April 06, 2007

    "War Dance"
    Review of Documentary
    Wide Theatrical Release in the fall of 2007

    Go see this film! This is one of the best documentaries I've seen in the past five years. "War Dance" follows the stories of three children, two girls and a boy, who have suffered unthinkable violence and loss to the hands of the rebels in the hotspot of civil war, northern Uganda. Without becoming melodramatic or cliche, directors Sean Fine and Andrea Nixe manage to tow a perfect balance between sharing the upsetting stories of the children's losses with the lightness of spirit that they can only feel when they are dancing, singing, and playing music.

    Perfect on every level. Well balanced between the hardship and tough stories of children who have seen their parents die at the hands of rebels and the lightness and healing that they find through the music and dance of their tribe. "War Dance" is truly a seamless movie that will be an Oscar contender for 2007.

    It won the best documentary award at "Sundance" and the Audience award at the Flagstaff Film Festival where Mama Chihuahua and I both caught it. Directed by Sean Fine and Andrea Nix, "War Dance" has already won best directing for a documentary at Sundance and best film at the Flagstaff Film Festival.

    Best directors for a documentary.
    Just watch the trailer:

  • Monday, March 19, 2007

    Getting High on Travel Adventure at the Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival

    For six years, I've attended the Banff Mountain Film Festival (which does an annual tour through Santa Barbara) with a borderline, religious-like zeal. I've made friends with other obsessive Banff movie-goers who also congregate hours early just to get seats in the first row at Campbell Hall (UCSB). The greatest drawback is that this festival comes through Santa Barbara but for only two nights a year.

    Fortunately my mother has discovered an event even more precious, four days of all the most extreme cultural, environmental, and adventure travel related documentaries from around the world. You pay $45 for a festival pass and you can watch your fill of movies for four days in a row!

    Welcome to the Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival! This thing rocks. Featuring
    43 feature and short films, a slideshow presentation by David Edwards, a National Geographic photographer, and several appearances by filmmakers. All of the films are screened at the Orpheum Theatre, a charismatic little historic theatre in downtown Flagstaff. You can munch on fresh popcorn, drink hot chocolate or sip from beer in this cool little theatre filled with outdoorsy bohemians. (The only thing missing for me was tequila...but I probably wouldn't have enjoyed the movies quite as much with a blue agave buzz.)

    From a humorous short on how to roast a Mongolian marmot to a two-hour documentary feature titled "War Dance," which highlights child refugees in Northern Uganda as they compete to perform in a national music and dance festival to a feature on the Kazakh eagle hunters of northwestern Mongolia, the film festival astounded me with its strong selection of films. Out of over ten films I saw, only one was weak. These odds, as many film festival goers recognize, aren't so bad. (I've been to other film festivals where I saw one good film out of ten and I paid four times more for each movie!)

    My only regret is that I didn't discover this festival earlier. Mark your calendars! Check out their website for details:

  • Flagstaff Mountain Film Festival

  • I'll see you at The Orpheum next year...front and center!

    Sunday, March 18, 2007

    This is one of the funniest clips I've seen on Youtube recently. I thought it was especially fitting for all those frustrated writers, photographers and filmmakers who've often felt stumped by their own necessary "technologies:"

    Thursday, February 01, 2007

    India Travels #7: Pushkar, India: Life Lessons from India

    February 1st, 2007
    Pushkar, India

    So, my very last email. Some bits of wisdom which Mama Chihuahua and I have learned from this indelible trip to India:

    1. Don't hug gypsy women (in case you have an inkling to do so). They have "friends," otherwise known as "lice."

    2. One can never have too much of these three things: toilet paper, bottled water, and chocolate.

    3. Never underestimate the value of a good night's sleep, a shower, and a healthy intestinal tract.

    4. Most people in the world are honest, kind, and helpful. The rest are Israelis. Just kidding.

    If you treat people with respect, they usually do the same. What has amazed me is the kindness and cheer of Indians in general. If you took a country this size and packed it with over 1 billion(!) Americans, Germans, or French, people would pretty much act like assholes. That's the miracle of India. That you've got such a densely populated country that's largely poor and illiterate and yet, the people always have a "Namaste," a smile, and something kind to say.

    In truth, we've really met few assholes here. The ones I can think of off hand, were foreigners. And I won't say what nationality but it starts with an "I."

    5. Never stand downwind of a pissing camel. Enough said.

    6. Always follow your instincts, even if they go in complete opposition to every grain of wisdom you have. I can't count the number of times we chose to trust someone against all odds and they affirmed our faith in them. Equally, follow your instincts if you have warning bells about someone. Instinct is our only true inner compass.

    7. Let go of expections. Destinations in guidebooks rarely meet your expectations. "A golden, ancient fortress enchanting at sunset" may well turn our to be a grimy, littered building (urine spilling down its fortress walls) that only seems beautiful in dim light.

    Equally, be open to places off the beaten track. You may find yourself resonating with a place you've never read about.

    8. Don't let the fear of getting sick get in the way of experiencing a country. Yes, I got sick. But getting food poisoning is par for the course and it's only the SECOND time in seven years of traveling to Asia that I have gotten sick. To this day, I swear that both times were actually from tourist restaurants (one at a buffet and another at our hotel). Some of my best experiences from traveling have been at roadside eateries (roasted cockroaches) and streetside cafes (falafel, spicy pakora, pistachio milk sweets). I wouldn't trade these experiences for the world. Sampling another culture's cuisine is one of the best ways to learn about its cultural and historical influences and its whole world view.

    So Bon Apetit!

    9. Buy! Buy! Buy! Buy lots and lots of stuff. I've never regretted any of the countless scarves, silk purses, skirts, jewelry, or wall hangings I've bought over the years. It's a piece of that trip that you bring back with you and, most importantly, it's good for the local economy.

    Learn to be a savvy haggler. More on this later....

    10. Don't make yourself suffer unnecessarily. You're on vacation after all! While Mom and I have often stayed in $5/night nasty little dungeons just to save money and tough it out, we've learned that spending a few extra bucks to stay in a higher end budget room with a hot shower and lice-free sheets makes us happier travelers in the end.

    A good night's sleep and peace of mind go a long way in keeping morale up when you're in a developing country that's constantly bombarding your senses...

    11. Don't take things personally. Gypsy woman spit on your feet? Sacred cow backed up into you?
    It's all a part of your day in India. Learn to laugh and see it all as a part of your travel experience. You get to visit here. Everyone else has to stay.

    Lastly, I'd like to give a shout out to my Mamacita. After seven years of these travels together, I have grown to love and respect her even more. I couldn't ask for a more compassionate, patient (mostly), and loving travel partner.

    And damn it, if she can't hold her own with ornery teenage boys, fiesty monkeys, mischievous cows, and overly aggressive gypsies.

    Here's to making all of your travel dreams happen and making sure you have a few extra rolls of toilet paper with you,

    all my love,
    Rachel and her Beloved Mama Chihuahua, Karen

    India Travels #6: Pushkar, India: Counted and Countless Moments in India

    Pushkar, Rajasthan, India
    Febrary 1st, 2007

    Wrapping up one of our last days in Pushkar and, alas, in India. I'm typing in an internet "cafe" asking a nasty Israeli to stop smoking. The constant honking of motorcycles out on the street, the dim laughter of vendors talking with Europeans (hardly any Americans!), and the occasional smell of fresh falafel being fried across the street at my favorite street cafe (only $1 for a giant plate of pita, hummous, falafel, french fries, and fresh salad).

    I've discovered a few ways of summarizing our trip:

    Chapatis eaten: 105
    Rolls of toilet paper used: 36
    Times we've been asked :"Were you come from, Madam?": 20/day
    Times we've been told "We give you verry best quality": countless
    Monkeys which have completely freaked Mom out in restaurants, hotels, roads, and temples: 33
    Scarves bought: 22
    Hairy rickshaw rides: 14
    Kilometers walked: 102
    Cows which have head butted us: 4
    Times we've said we're not buying anything else: countless
    Banana Lassies mom has ingested: 2-3/day
    Camel farts we've been subjected to on safari: 5/hour
    Namaste greetings exchanged: countless
    Snotty nosed children asking for rupees, chocolate, or pens: 6-7/day
    Rouds of antibiotics taken: 2
    Cows nearly hi by our rickshaw, taxi, or chosen mode of transportt: 2
    Policemen nearly hit: 1
    Dogs nearly hit: countless
    Handiwipes used: 154

    Namaste (#2206),
    Rachel and Karen

    Tuesday, January 30, 2007

    India Travels #5: Pushkar: A Vegetarian’s Paradise

    January 30th, 2007
    Pushkar, Rajashtan, India

    Mamacita and I are having our last foray in the sacred Hindu town of Pushkar, situated along a lake apparently created by the God Brahma when he dropped a Lotus blossom and then seriously pissed off his girlfriend who he didn't marry when she arrived late for the wedding.

    We're staying in one of the most gorgeous hotels I've ever had the means to pay for. It's a haveli, or converted palace, that is open air and centered around a marble courtyard and fountain. Each floor has marble staircases decorated with winding ivy, paintings, glass art pieces, and porch swings decorated with cherry red cushions. The rooftop is capped by several sapphire glass domes. Foreigners from around the world luxuriate on fluffy cushions and chaise lounges, listening to Indian music, while they wait to be served plates of banana nutella filled crepes and entrees of penne pasta with homemade basil and tomato sauce.

    Our room, decorated with a four-post carved wooden bed, Rajasthani tapestries, wall hangings, and mosaic tile bathroom, costs a mere $21.00 a night.

    Pushkar is a vegetarian's paradise and mother's greatest nightmare. Because it's one of the most sacred Hindu sites in India, eggs, alcohol, and meat are strictly forbidden within the town's limits. Mom is so sick of chapatis and tofu that she has spent the last couple of nights describing the number of blood rare steaks she's going to eat when we get back to the states. She's even come close to offering big money to any street vendor who is willing to perform the sacrilege of finding and cooking meat for her, any meat. Mostly I fear for the cows. Hoping I don't catch my mother accidentally "pushing" one of them down a flight of temple steps.


    Although this town is known for its holy temples and ghats, or cremation sites along the lake, we're pretty cultured out. Several aggressive priests wait by the ghat entrances demanding donations and gypsy women vulture around the steps of the temples looking for hand-outs.

    For the most part, we just want to shop.

    Our hotel room is quickly filling up with stacks of shoes, skirts, blouses, bangles, and bindis. I can honestly say that no mortal woman should get as much joy out of shopping as we do. Yet we soldier on. And dammit, the Thurston Girls are good for the Indian economy.

    Tomorrow we head on the train to Delhi where we'll hang out with our friend, Aan, at Nehru University, wander through the Spice Market in the Muslim Quarter and go find Mom the kind of protein that doesn't grow on a tree.

    all my love,
    Rachel and Mama Chihuahua

    India Travels #4: Rajasthan, India: Camels and Cobras of the Thar Desert

    January 30, 2007
    Pushkar, Rajasthan, India

    More than any other trip, we've had difficulty bringing ourselves to enter an internet cafe to write about our experiences and then when we finally did, the power kept going out. So here I am two weeks later trying to encapsulate the desert state of Rajasthan....

    After Darjeeling, we made our way by train to Jaipur. Best to speak less of Jaipur than more. Dirty, crowded, and supposedly a "fantastic shopping destination." Hah! Mama Chihuahua and I will be the judges of that! Bollocks!

    We took another overnight train to the far western reaches of Rajasthan near the border of Pakistan to a whimsical little town called Jaiselmer. Unfortunately, some back Paluk Paneer caught up with me and I spent 12 hours retching and spewing (from both ends) into a nasty little toilet at the end of the train car. There's nothing more undignifying than trying to keep your balance on a train while squatting in over an Indian toilet with your skirt pulled high as you try to lean towards the sink without dragging your scarf, necklace, and hair into the ordeal.

    "So here I am in India, the cliche of all Indian stories. Retching on an Indian train. For the next day, I was wrapped in a fetal curl beneath blankets alternating between chills and overwhelming and nauseating fever while the ever-heroic Mama Chihuahua made her way through the alleyways of cows to buy her beloved hija bunches of bananas, electrolytes, bottles of water, and more toilet paper.

    After a round of antibiotics and a few days of rest, I was back to my normal, fiesty self. Thank god for Cipro and bottled water!

    When I awoke from my e-coli induced state, I discovered Jaiselmer to be a magical and restful place. The small town is circled around an enchanting walled fort that, from the distance, looks like a sand castle in a fairy tale. Cows wander the streets, kids run to school, and the Thar desert stretches infinite across the horizon. We found an exquisite hotel to stay in, created with a combination of desert elements...thick adobe-like walls, window seats covered with pillows, thick wooden doors and giant brass knockers, thin silk curtains in shocking shades of marigold, rose, and lemon....archways, grated floors to let the desert heat escape, and the scent of incense perfuming the halls.

    The Jaiselmer walled city itself is one of the coolest walled cities I have seen (among my favorites of Lijiang, China and Dubrovnik, Croatia) stone walkways winding up beneath giant city gates like something out of Lord of the Rings. Pigeons peppering the sky and landing on exquisitely carved stone temples that turn a warm amber at sunset. Little shops selling saddle bags, journals, and Indiana Jones-like hats crafted from Camel leather.

    Goats, camels, and cows grazing along the roads. Women dressed in long flowing blood red saris with gold trim that sparkles in the sun. The smells of urine mingling with spices and frying vegetable pakoda. Vendors selling fruits from wooden carts piled high with oranges, grapes, pomegranates, and bananas. Muslim men wearing turbans and trimmed beards...Hindu men riding bicycles....this is where the religions really mix. The architectural style of the fort could easily be Moroccan or Middle Eastern. Western Rajasthan is as much Middle Eastern as it is Indian. From there, you are less than 40 miles from the Pakistan border and the cultures are quite fluid.

    Camel Safari:

    To fulfill one of my lifelong dreams (or at least the past five years), we arranged to go on a camel safari for two days through the desert. About a dozen people warned us how magical the desert is but how painful riding a camel is and, of course, I eschewed their warnings and thought, "how painful could it really be? I've been on elephants before!"

    After an early morning departure and drive into the desert where we met up with our two camel guides and six camels for me, my mother, and two chain-smoking but amiable Welsh girls, I was quickly put onto a camel named "Tiger" when our guide "Narayan" learned that I was rather tentative about riding one for the first time.

    Let me break it down like this: Riding a camel is akin to straddling a very WIDE redwood tree trunk (without padding) while riding at high speeds in the back of a pick-up truck (with no suspension) at high speeds over VW-sized moguls. I went through all of my ibuprofen supplies within the following 48 hours.

    But I did come to love my camel, Tiger, who didn't seem to pass wind quite as often as the others and always tolerated letting me scratch him behind the ears at rest stops.

    The desert seemed quite familiar to me and brought back fond memories of my time in the Central Desert of Australia and of river guiding in Big Bend National Park down in Texas. The air was hot and dry and smelled sweet to me. We wove in between stands of giant milkweed and stepped over purple star-shaped flowers (related to potatoes and nightshade) and spotted soccer ball-size melons that the men told us "women like to eat." Whatever that means.

    At lunch, we sat on dusty blankets in the sand beneath a giant acacia tree while one of the Welsh girls went foraging for wild peacock feathers. Nearby baby goats grazed and called for their mothers. The guides, Aanu and Narayan, cooked over a tiny wood fire in the 80 degree plus heat (in the summer, temperatures reach over 125 degrees Fahrenheit) and miraculously cooked us plates of noodles, vegetables seasoned with cumin and chilies, and hand-rolled, wood-fired chapatis.

    In the afternoon, we passed through a small "farm" where a baby goat had just been born and the afterbirth trailed from its mother. A tiny grass-thatched hut was circled by a briar fence where two dozen baby goats bleated for their mothers who were out grazing for the afternoon.

    As we rode, we passed giant holes in the sand made by Cobras and Mom keenly spotted several desert antelope sproinging through the brush on the horizon.

    At sunset, we made our camp at the base of sand dunes and watched another small group of camel riders cut the desert sky with their silhouettes as they rode across the ridge of sand dunes.
    I had a special fantasy of imagining I looked like Rachel Weisz from "The Mummy" dressed in a flowing black sari and headress as she rode with her camel...and then I caught a glimpse of my horrendously matched (but ever functional!) outfit of forest green trekking pants, white hat, and bright green and orange Indian top, and blood earrings...and reconsidered that the movies don't always reflect the grist of true travel...especially atop a camel.

    Narayan took us across the dunes for sunset. Mom and I had to share the same camel for a half hour and it must have been most interesting watching us nearly spill over when the camel stood up and our saddle went vertical but there was nothing to hold onto but each other. I wanted to give her a really mean wedgie when I rode behind but thought the better of it. She wouldn't stop pinching and prodding me when we later changed positions and we nearly fell off the camel when it sat back down in camp because we were wrestling so hard.

    That night was one of the most peaceful we've had in India. The camels crunched on grass in the darkness as we sat beside the fire beneath a starry sky and waxing moon. The air was sweet and cool and we curled up not soon after dinner beneath a pile of old blankets on the sand. Narayan made sure that our heads were sheltered by the saddles in case a sandstorm hit in the middle of the night.

    I thought of cobras making their way into my sleepsheet and then realized that the chance of being stepped on by a grazing camel in the middle of the night was much more likely.

    When I awoke in the pre-dawn light, I watched an ephedra-like plants stems flutter in the slight wind like sea anemone tentacles. The sky slowly turned a pale baby blue....the sound of camel bells in another part of camp...the air was so still I could hear the snapping of a twig in the other camp a quarter mile away.

    I saw a blurry movement near the blankets by my feet and made out the shape of a small dog had curled up beside me in the middle of the night for warmth. There was something comforting about the humanity of it in the desert night.

    We rode throughout the rest of the day, feeling more comfortable in our saddles. I drank up the sky and the sand and the scrub with all my senses. The dog followed us throughout the day as we made our way through a village and then into a small town. We watched our dark silhouettes move across the sand and stone as the sun rose in the sky.

    My skin tightened with the dryness and the earth beneath us radiated heat. We drank bottles and bottles of water, riding quietly and then alternating with songs.

    As we waited for our ride along the side of a road later that night, a group of village children gathered around us, wanting us to take their photos. Our ride was quite late but I eventually gave into the frustration of "Indian Time" and struck up a Cricket match with two of the boys using a dirty thong (flip flop) in place of the ball.

    We were laughing and making fun of each other so much that, by the time, our jeep had come, I no longer cared about the time. That is the magic of India. You stay still long enough, you start to enjoy yourself.

    We had given into India and the laughter of the children followed us all the way home.
    I slept that night to the sound of crickets and dreamt of a yawning sky and a desert that went on forever....

    Rachel and Karen

    Wednesday, January 17, 2007

    India Travels #3.5: Darjeeling, India: Blood and Chocolate

    Darjeeling, India
    January 16, 2007

    We're arrived back in Darjeeling after a challenging and flipping freezing 6-day trek along a high-altitude mountain ridge along the foothills of Himalayas.
    Our trekking map was covered in bits of blood and chocolate from my fingers....since our arrival in Darjeeling, we've been layered in long underwear, double layers of fleece, down vests and jackets, hats, gloves, and bright purple and red yak wool wraps.
    There seems to be no central heating anywhere in Darjeeling. Not even in the local businesses or restaurants. We've spoken to a few foreigners staying in fancy hotels and even those places have no heat. We eat our meals wearing gloves and fleece hats but have gotten somewhat accustomed to the temperatures.
    We've found a bakery named, Glenary's, which specializes in chocolates (coconut, mint, and rum raisin) and makes daily batches of chocolate cakes, chicken curry rolls, cheese sticks, apple muffins, and amazingly, jelly-filled doughnuts.
    We've made friends with many of the staff at our favorite haunts and corner stores and the walk through the local market has become familiar to us. It's funny what home becomes in such a short amount of time.
    The rich sounds of Nepali roll across my tongue and I mimic all the words I hear mentally like a parrot...ramro...deri jaro cha...mero ama...kye lagu?...meetoh Nepali vocabulary started coming back to me on the trek. I'd be sitting at breakfast eating a hot bowl of porridge and suddenly the word "hajur" would enter my head as the appropriate phrase for "sure."
    From our trips to the Himalayas in Nepal and China/Tibet over the past seven years, this mountain culture has become nostalgic to us and comfortably familiar. Although there are national lines drawn across these mountains (India, China, Nepal, and Bhutan), these people are all of one heart and similar ancestry. The lingua franca here, although it is technically in North India, is Nepali. And it would be easy to walk through the villages and get a sense you were in North Nepal or rural Tibet.
    The people are handsome and Buddhist. They eat momos, dahl baht, and Tibetan bread. In Darjeeling, the British influence is still evident. Thankfully, they introduced better roads, the steam locomotive, tasty porridge, and popcorn (which we sprinkle on our hot soups here)!
    We love it here so much that we changed our departure for another day later. Yesterday was filled with serendipitous encounters with strangers who became friends. A family who owns the oldest tea room in Darjeeling...their daughter owns a gorgeous little boutique filled with hand-beaded saris, rhinestone jewelry, rajasthani-sequined pointed shoes. We were there so long that her family ordered several trays of tea and delightful sugar cookies, cheese sticks, crunchy snack mixes, and this divine confection called, "Barfi," made from sweetened milk and roasted pistachios.
    Needles to say, we've been eating like queens.
    Our hotel room is only $10/night and we often have huge meals that cost under $3 for both of us!
    Next we head to Rajasthan, land of the Maharajas....the famed "pink city" and the land of sand dunes and camel trains.

    Tuesday, January 16, 2007

    India Travels #3: Darjeeling, India: The Last Chicken of Sandakphu

    January 16th
    Darjeeling, India

    We've recently returned from our 6-day trek through Singalilla National Park. We walked over 65 kilometers at altitudes of 7-12,000 feet during the coldest month of the year...bundled in long underwear, double layers of fleece, wool mittens, hats, and down jackets.

    During the coldest night, our water bottles froze nearly solid and our guides even complained about the cold. The yaks even seemed to be shivering. Why we choose to trek in the Himalayas during the winter is something we often asked ourselves but the empty trails and magnificent clear skies during the days made our discomfort all worth it!

    Following a mountain ridgeline seperating Nepal and India, we walked through small highland villages populated by a mixture of Tibetans, Nepalis, and other hill tribe people who have migrated here over the past many years. Weaving in and out of the two national territories, some nights were spent in Nepal and others were in India.

    At high altitude, everyone's cold. ;)

    As a special treat for ourselves, we chose to hire a guide and porters as guides are compulsory and we thought, "what the hell? Let's see what it's like!." Manish is about my age and incredibly bright, articulate, and funny. He's college educated and knew the Nepali, English, and scientific names of many of the plants and animals we came across. Lelin, the second guide, was a sweetheart, as were the other two porters, Shom and Uttam, the cook.

    Over the week, we trekked across windswept hills dotted by heath-like shrubs reminiscent of the Scottish Highlands, through ancient forests of rhodendron and giant pine trees knotted and twisted from the harsh winds, across a glacier fed river, past a sacred black lake festooned with faded but brilliant prayer flags, across fields of giant grazing yaks exquisite in their long coats, and through tiny villages where the goats, chickens, and children ran freely and women with long black hair rinsed their hair beneath natural springs.

    At the highest point, Sandakphu (12,000), we froze our asses off through the night....Manish brought us our dinner (noodles, mushroom soup with popcorn, chapatis, masala potatoes, and hot chai) in bed and gave us each hot water bottles to put at the bottom of our sleeping bags to clutch through the night....

    Earlier in the evening, mother had been lusting after some protein and asked Manish for a roast chicken. After an hour or so, Manish returned from his search throughout the village.

    "Mom," he told us looking quite devastated to bring us the bad news, "I'm sorry to tell you this but there is a problem. There are no chickens left in Sandakphu for the winter. I found only one chicken and begged the farmer for the chicken but he says he must keep the chicken for the eggs to get him through the season. Noodle soup?"

    We had to have a good laugh about it. There are no groceries out there. There are only the elements and pure basic food. Her taste for meat could certainly wait.

    In the morning, we awoke at sunrise and made our way through 50 mph icy winds to the hilltop to watch the sunrise over Mount Everest, Makalu, LLotse (yes, we could see all the way!) and Kanchenjunga, India's pride and joy, the third highest mountain in the world.
    As we bundled ourselves up in blankets and shot away with our cameras, the sun rose over a wispy sea of clouds and it appeared as if we were in the heavens looking out across the world with these enormous masterpieces rising from the clouds.
    A black raven landed in one of the juniper trees and cut a gorgeous sharp silhouette against the mist and pink snow-capped mastiffs.

    On our way back to the "lodge" (which is a bit gratuitous as there is no electricity or heat or insulation), we heard a chicken crow as if it were a running on a dying golf cart battery.

    The Last Chicken of Sandakphu sounded even colder than us.

    Needless to say, it was a brilliant journey.

    Rachel and Karen

    Monday, January 08, 2007

    India Travels #2: Darjeeling, India: Land of Yaks, Tea, and Rickshaws

    Monday evening, January 8th
    Darjeeling, North India, between Nepal and Bhutan in the foothills of the Himalayas

    Yesterday we took a short flight from Delhi to West Bengal and then hired a taxi for the three-hour drive into the mountains where the old English Hill Station of Darjeeling is nestled along a thin ridge overlooking the Himalayas.

    Nothing could have prepared us for the drive....starting in the flats we made our way past tea plantations where some of the world's most esteemed and labor-intensive teas originate past small villages, rickshaws, buses, bicyclists, cows, chickens, and goats. Although I had been prepared for crazy driving in India, it was difficult not to wince at every large army truck or commercial vehicle which came roaring towards us on our side of the road before a last minute swerve out of the way. Within an hour, our driver nearly hit a cow and then a military guy riding a bicycle.

    We ascended several thousand feet through a thick forest of banyan trees, giant stalks of bamboo, ferns, flowering lantana, and strange looking cedar-like trees. Just a couple of feet from where Mom sat, the one-lane road dropped precipitously out of side on mountains steep enough to safely base jump off of. We took the hairpin turns at high speeds with our driver honking on each turn in case we came head on with another truck, which happened a lot.

    As the sun set, we could see miles across the valley to the other mountains and even caught a glimpse of the snow-covered Himalayas along the Nepal/Indian border.

    Our hotel is quite cheap and incredibly clean and spacious. Only $10/night with hot showers but no central heating. We're quite lucky with the weather as it's the coldest month of the year but the skies have mostly been quite clear. Darjeeling is perched along a narrow ridge and the rooftop of our hotel boasts an awesome 360 degree view with early morning peaks at Everest, Llotse, and Kanchengjungma, three of the tallest mountains in the world. It's incredible to believe that only a few years ago we were just a few miles from here on the other side of Everest in the base camp. The people here are Buddhist and look more Tibetan/Nepali than Indian. Their skin is lighter than Indians and they have the almond-shaped eyes and high, wide cheekbones typical of other Himalayan cultures we've come across. They also speak Nepali here instead of Hindi.

    There are only a handful of other Westerners here, most of the tourists to Darjeeling this time of the year are Indian tourists from Calcutta hoping to see snow and experience a little bit of mountain culture during the holidays. Indian families strolled across the plaza last night eating freshly popped popcorn, bundled up in their wool hats and scarves.

    This afternoon we serendipitously ran into a couple of guys who have taken place in a race across Delhi. It seems that some eccentric English guy thought it might be fun to propose zany races around the world like say, driving a rickshaw (basically a three-wheeled metal box that runs on a pretty small vw-like engine meant for the cities) from Kerala, in the south of India, 3000 kilometers to Darjeeling.

    It seems we've stumbled onto the finish-line of this international race. Apparently 35 teams entered it only ten days ago and the winning team--"The Rajasthani Raiders," whom we had lunch with, were two young guys (cousins) from the Midwest! (WHOOO!) They had friendly competition with the Brits but were finally a little peeved at being called "wankers" one time too many by Captain Chaos' team ( and decided to just go balls out and win the whole damn thing.

    Doing the impossible, they started the race late, bought a rickshaw and completed the 3000 miles in record time: eight days! The second team to come in, the one headed by Captain Chaos, a travel agent from London, thought they'd won it until they came across the Yanks in the pub.

    Tonight, several of the teams are meeting up at one of the only bars in town here and have invited Mom and I to come celebrate with them. We enjoyed hearing stories of their rickshaw breakdowns and a treacherous stretch of road called "Craters of the Moon" where whole rickshaws were swallowed up by trenches in the poorly maintained mountain roads just south of Darjeeling.

    After lunch, Mom looked over at me and asked with her mischievous Mama Chihuahua smile, "You wanna do one of these races with me?"

    Heck yes!

    In the meantime, we've made arrangements to go on a 6-day trek along the Nepali border through the mountains and villages near here. We'll have porters and two guides who'll be cooking for us. They told us they'll be bringing along some "inner blanket" as well.

    "Inner blanket?" mom asked our guide.

    He made a motion of drinking alcohol. "You know to keep warm inside," he laughed.

    We're packing tonight, partying with the teams of mad-rickshaw racers at the local bar, and then heading for the Nepali border tomorrow to start our trek.

    More to come....after our trek we plan on heading to Rajasthan, home of the Rajaput warriors and Maharajas....

    much love,
    a little cold, stuffed on Masala Chai, and happy-
    Rachel and Mama Chihuahua

    India Travels #1: Delhi, India: A Riot of the Senses

    Monday, January 8th
    Delhi, India

    Wle're arrived safely after days of traveling! It took us two days to get to India and we arrived in Delhi taking a taxi through the chaos of traffic. Imagine the 101 filled with rickshaws, tuk-tuks, taxis, buses, and bicyclists in a mad dash with one another. Basically, all the oncoming traffic heads down the middle of the road straight into you until both vehicles swerve inches away from one another at the last possible second. On our way here yesterday, our taxi driver nearly hit a cow and then a military captain riding a bicycle. From all that we've read and heard, if you're in an accident here and you're able to walk, it's advised that you get out of the car as fast as possible and run as far from the accident as possible to avoid the mobs of people who attack the driver and matter whose fault it is.

    We stayed in the Paharganj district of Delhi which is cheap, seedy, and full of tightly packed shops, street vendors, and random cows. The noises and sounds and smells are overwhelming but, to us, not unlike what we've experienced in Kathmandu, Nepal from prior trips. Within just steps, we pass garbage, excrement, dogs, cows, carts filled with pomegranates, oranges, and grapes, men hawking and spitting, make-shift urinals, vendors frying pastries. All overhead are a tangle of unprotected electrical wiring. Our hostel was about $10/night with a lukewarm shower and a staff of several men and young boys who were extraordinarily helpful. Mom and I were so prepared to be hassled in India that the kindness of strangers really impressed us. One man out of the street kept yelling to get my attention and tell me I had dropped our guidebook. Another young street boy selling postcards yelled after Mom to warn her that her skirt was getting caught in the rickshaw wheel. And one morning after a fit of coughing from my flu, a man in our hostel tapped on our door and gave me a bottle of cough syrup and a spoon, "Please madam, take two spoons."

    It's dirty and poor and rich in the senses. It's wonderful!

    As so happens in the magic of our travels, we had nearly forgotten that a very good friend of my mother's cousin lives here in Delhi. "An," a 34-year old Indonesian, is finishing his Phd in sociology at the university here and happened to have the day off. He arrived on our first morning here carrying two dozen pink and yellow roses (shit, I can't remember the last time that happened!), turkish apricots, welcome postcards from Indonesia, a platter of fresh oranges, grapes, and apples, and a tin of imported Danish cookies.

    Mom and I were immediately stoked.

    He treated us like princesses for the rest of the day. We had had no plans for the day except to rest but we found ourselves whisked away on rickshaws through the tangle of human traffic and into the maze of Old Delhi where the Muslims settled over 600 years ago. We explored the largest mosque in all of India and walked beneath the exquisite marble archways of a the Red Fort, build by Jah Shahan, the Muslim emperor who also commissioned the construction of the Taj Mahal just a few hours from here. It wasn't difficut to imagine peacocks, elephants, and courtesans strolling among the grounds beneath the giant banyan trees only centuries ago. The architecture felt strangely familiar to me and only renewed my interest in traveling to the Middle East.

    In the afternoon, we walked through the labyrinth-like spice market lined with centuries-old cobblestones....passing tiny shops stacked with saris, blankets, and giant bowls of fresh cumin seeds, peppercorns, cardamom, mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, and dried fruits. The smells of earth, antiquity, urine, and frying spices all mix freely and I couldn't help but think of the old Indiana Jones movie where he comes across a turbaned guy at the end of an alley in a comical face-off.

    All the food here is incredible. Half the time we have no idea what we're eating but it's damn good. I hinted I liked what I saw in one small stall and within seconds An was standing among a group of men before a giant vat of oil and fried triangles of dough. He brought us each a small tin foil plate with deep fried triangles of bread filled with layers of spicy potatoes and paneer (Indian cheese) and swimming in a sweet red relish and a mint sauce.

    Damn good!

    Mom and I stopped again in front of a "sweet" shop much like the old fountains of our youth where drinks are served in pewter glasses and the table tops, floor, and walls are made of an alabaster marble.

    We nibbled on sweets made from sweet milk, cardamom, and pistachios and sipped on Masala Chai, a hot, sweet, milky tea made with peppercorns, cinnamon, black tea, and cardamom and sold throughout India.

    Several men sat cross-legged in front of giant skillets of sizzling oil, dropping swirls of dough into the oil of one and rounds of popadoms into another. Young, grinning boys ran back and forth between customers with glasses of hot chai and piping hot popamoms....customers would dip the popamom rounds into various chutneys.

    At sunset, we visited India's largest mosque, strolling across the main square in our socks, as is customary to show respect. Clouds of black pigeons peppered the sky above the fountain and young girls in saris strolled past the mosque walls.

    For dinner, An took us to a special restaurant in South Delhi which specializes in food from Hyderabad, India. For only $3 we were given a giant metal tray and several men came by our table filling it with chapatis, white rice, lemon scented rice, popadoms, baba ganouj, spicy potatoes, spinach and tomatoes, curd, a sweet rice-based jelly dessert, a darkened lemon chicken which fell off the bone, and a half-dozen other spices and curries to mix in with our food. At any moment we looked up and pointed to a dish we'd especially liked, an older gentleman would snap his fingers "godfather-like" and a young man would be at our table spooning more of it on to our plates.

    Needless to say, our first day in India was beyond anything we dreamed and we were grateful to An for being such an incredibly gracious host.
    "Christ," mom said at the end of the day, "I'm giving this boy my home wherever I live."

    Next up:
    travel to the Indian Hill Station of Darjeeling....

    all our love,
    Rachel and her surprisingly docile Mama Chihuahua