We finished our stay with a traditional Bhutanese meal in an empty restaurant with our new friend, Chimi. This was the first time we saw her out of her traditional Bhutanese clothes and she could’ve been any Westerner walking the street.
We spent the night telling stories, drinking Bhutanese Shandies (beer, coke, Johnnie Walker Red Label), and eating some of the spiciest food I’ve ever tasted. Chimi taught us how to make phallus napkin art. It was perfect.
As we drove back to our hotel, Adrienne and I couldn’t have been happier. I entered Bhutan with high expectations. On this round-the-world adventure, I knew Bhutan would be the most “foreign” of all our stops. To be honest, I didn’t know the half of it. My expectations weren’t only met, they were exceeded.
I know this is a pretty glowing review of a whole country despite the fact that I only visited a small portion of it. Bhutan, like any country run by humans, isn’t perfect. But, to a kid raised in a small town, this country was unlike anything I ever thought I would experience in my life.
Bhutan allowed my to understand how lucky I am to be able to take this trip. I’ve known that from the beginning but, now I can feel it in my heart.
As we continue on to our next stops, I’ll welcome them fondly, still excited to experience new cultures. But, in the back of my head, I’ll still be digesting Bhutan, truly the “Last Shangri-La.”
Lucky for us, our second day was a festival in celebration of the capital city of Thimpu. This festival only happens once a year and we got to experience it! We watched monks perform a two hour Black Hat/ Mask Dance. It was mind blowing. Straight out of a movie. These monks, covered in numerous brightly decorated robes and wearing heavy, large masks, danced to the beats of sacred symbols and drums.
We spent the night visiting with my sister-in-law’s friend, Palden. He welcomed us to his glorious house on the banks of a rushing river. We sat outside drinking tea, watching the river flow as residents of Thimpu hiked across the mountains on the other banks. Palden and his sister Pamela are the reason we were able to go to Bhutan in the first place and were so grateful for their help!
Back in Paro, the city where we landed, we spent the day seeing more beautiful and significant sites. More importantly, we were resting for the next day’s adventure — the Tiger’s Nest.
The Tiger’s Nest is a monastery complex that is 3200 meters above see level built into the side of a cliff. In 1692, the complex was constructed around the cave where Guru Padmasambhava meditated for three years in the 8th century. It’s called “The Tiger’s Nest” because his wife transformed into a tiger and he rode her all over Bhutan. Also, from far away, the rock looks like a tiger’s face.
To be honest - I am NOT A FAN OF HEIGHTS. However, I knew this was a place I needed to visit.
You start with a two hour hike up to a look out point across from the complex - a beautiful place to take pictures. You then take 826 steps carved into the cliff’s wall, crossing a small valley passed a waterfall. It’s breathtaking in all senses - it’s beautiful and ABSOLUTELY TERRIFYING.
We entered the complex to the sounds of chanting monks playing over a speaker system. As a Westerner, I thought “Oh, it’s a little cheesy that they’re playing taped monks.” Only after snaking through a series of little temples did we enter a larger room filled with a few dozen monks actually chanting. In the center, on a throne above them, sat a teenage monk dressed in golden robes chanting in sync. Those weren’t taped monks — real monks were chanting!
It turns out that these monks were in the middle of doing 100,000 prayers and the teenager was the reincarnation of a very influential guru. He’s considered one of the HOLIEST PEOPLE IN BHUTAN.
As we were standing, taking this unique sight, our guide was calmly freaking out. As a devout Buddhist, this boy was very special to her. Just then, the monks decided to take a break from chanting and leave the room. As they shuffled out, the guru came over to us and asked our guide where we were from. She replied “United States” and then motioned for us to bow our heads. The guru then said a prayer as he touched both Adri and me on our temples, blessing us. It was incredible.
Our guide got tears in her eyes.
As we hiked down from the Tiger’s Nest, I reflected on the fact that there are only a few times in your life where you are conscious of the fact that you’ll remember the present moment until you pass. I’ve had a few of those in the past year. This day definitely made the list.
I need a few posts to truly convey the experience we had in Bhutan. Bear with me.
They call Bhutan the “Last Shangri-La,” and it lives up to its name. A kingdom deep in the Himalayas, Bhutan has only allowed a specific yearly allotment of tourists for the past 30 years. They forbid anyone exporting antiques and won’t allow foreigners to become citizens. This is all an attempt to maintain the Buddhist heritage, thus creating an incredibly unique visit for any tourist lucky enough to be accepted.
The magic began on our flight from Kathmandu. Flying past the highest mountains in the world, including K2 and Mt. Everest, you eventually land in the Paro airport. This link will teach you a little about that landing (hint: it’s considered one of the most dangerous in the world) — http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YsZqN-uEgQU Any stress gained during that landing is completely washed away as you leave the plane to be greeted by enormous untouched mountains surrounding you.
Stepping out of the the airport, we met our guide, Chimi. In our four days together, Chimi was not only the perfect guide, she also became our close friend. Chimi was a Bhutanese farmer who became the first female guide in the country back in 1997. From the get go, our relationship became more than just guide/tourist when Chimi revealed that she became a guide in order to help cope with the sudden loss of her husband, brother, and sister in law in an accident. In other words, shit got real very quickly.
The sightseeing begins immediately (partially because the country is full of wonderful things to learn about). On the drive to Thimpu (the capital), we stopped at a steel-chained bridge built in the 8th century. This is where Chimi started schooling us on Buddhism and its role in Bhutan. I won’t get into the details, but every place we went was steeped in historical significance in relation to Buddhism.
We spent the day sightseeing around Thimpu before grabbing some food and getting ready for bed. Suddenly, Gangnam Style started blasting outside our window. Being in a country that presents itself as a example of the living past, this was a shock. Curious, we stepped out of the hotel to find a talent show happening across the street. Teams of high school aged Bhutanese dance crews battled it out for the number one spot. No joke — it was “Bhutan’s Best Dance Crew.” The best part — after the show, as the kids filed out of the auditorium, there was a teenage SCUFFLE between two dance crews arguing over who was the best. No one was hurt, it was only posturing. Adrienne and I couldn’t help but laugh. I felt like I was in middle school again.
It was rainy and Adri had a little cold. We still killed it.
Staying with our friends Mareika and Basti, we had a short amount of time to mix sightseeing with catching up. They live in the neighborhood of Kreuzburg which is a very hip up-and-coming spot. Their apartment would make anyone jealous — high ceilings with ornate, turn of the century crown moulding. While I love California mid-century modern, there is something inherently romantic to me about pre-war ceilings.
We hit a number of sights, including the breathtaking and thought-provoking Holocaust memorial. I’ve never been so moved by such a newly constructed memorial (it was completed in 2005). Every piece of it was built to invoke a reaction from the visitor - and it worked. If you’re ever in Berlin, even if you’re not there to sight see, I highly recommend paying the memorial a visit.
The highlight of our time was learning about the squatter culture that existed in Berlin before the unification. Kreuzburg was too close to the wall to make it habitable. So, building owners just considered it a no man’s land and stopped caring about their properties. Those abandoned buildings were eventually squatted and, when the wall fell, all of those squatters claimed squatters rights. Many of them still remain!
On our last night, we ate dinner in a cloister that had been occupied and maintained by some of those squatters pre-unification. Since then, they’ve turned it into a complex of artist’s lofts and restaurants. It reminded me a lot of when I used to visit Williamsburg, Brooklyn in the early 2000’s.
From there, we hit up the small town of Eltville in German wine country, on the recommendation from our friend Nils. We had a nice day of sipping wine along the Rhine before jumping on a plane to Kathmandu. If you ever need to get out of Frankfurt for a day, head out to Eltville — but, to be honest, Frankfurt is pretty nice too. Your call.
So, we did Europe and we did it well. Now, onto Asia!
I haven’t posted in a while because we’ve been constantly on the go and without good wifi. So, I’m going to play catch up over the next few days.
We spent the longest stretch of time in Hungary, mainly Budapest. This is where my wife was born (although she’s lived in the States since she was two). We stayed with her father and his family, who couldn’t have been more welcoming to this foreigner. I feel lucky to have such a wonderful family halfway across the world!
Over the years, my wife has tried to teach me common Hungarian phrases, but they make sounds that my mouth just can’t repeat. So, throughout our entire time in Hungary, I was a great example of the dumb American who can’t say anything more than “hello” and “thank you.”
Budapest is a city rich in history and art that could become a European hub within the next ten years. It’s already become a weekend destination for thousands of European tourists, looking to have a blast. Every night we saw some type of special celebration happening as people flock to the “Ruin Pubs” downtown. These are bars and clubs built in abandoned buildings or empty lots. They’re AWESOME.
Hungary is currently in a deep economic depression, and there were signs of it everywhere. We saw this first hand visiting Adri’s family in Veszprem, a small town in the countryside. We visited with many, many family members including her grandmother and her cousin Balazs, who both came to our wedding. Balazs (a chef by trade), could only make a living by opening a buffet catering to the homeless population.
Despite the bleak economic situation, our hosts in Veszprem couldn’t have been more gracious, loving people. Despite my language barrier, we had so much fun together - laughing, eating, drinking. To them, sharing our time wasn’t about showing off their city, it was about connecting with their family from abroad. It was wonderful.
Lastly, I don’t like to comment on political situations in the countries we’ve been visiting. However, Hungary’s current political climate is troubling. The ruling party touts semi-fascist tones and extroverted racist ideas. Ruling on a platform of isolationism, they have no qualms about openly condemning the Gypsies or the Jews. Skinheads can be seen roaming the streets in packs. Hate-filled graffiti can be found scribbled on walls. Since my father-in-law is Jewish, I can’t help but be concerned about this.
THAT SAID - I’m making a list of “must return to” places from this trip and Budapest is a must.
24 Hours in Madrid…
…and we beat that city UP.
In order to leave Morocco and get to our next stop of Budapest, we had to connect through Madrid. Instead of making it a short layover, we decided to extend it and give ourselves a full 24 hours. We crushed those 24 hours.
Quickly dumping our bags at the hotel, we beelined to the Plaza Mayor for some wine and relaxing. It was the perfect adjustment to Spanish culture after leaving the frenzied streets of Marrakech.
After filling ourselves with wine and cured meats, we hit the Prado to see one of my favorite paintings - Goya’s “Saturn Devouring His Son.” Goya’s entire collection of “Black Paintings” fascinates me. He never meant for these paintings to be viewed in public, so it seams as if he was expressing a true reflection of his soul at that time. While the images are haunting, there is a beauty to their truth. Staring into the eyes of Saturn, I felt like Janosz electrically connecting with Vigo the Carpathian in “Ghostbusters II.”
At night we roamed the streets doing our own sangria/ tapas crawl. We hit old haunts as well as new spots. Food, booze, chatting with randoms along the way - it was great!
The next day we casually explored the streets hitting Palacio Real and a few other stops, all the while snacking on churros con chocolate or street toasts from Mercado San Miguel.
I love Madrid. It has been 17 years since I was last here but it all came rushing back. Yes, it might have been nice to spend more time there but, to be honest, I’d rather experience new things. I’ll be back in Madrid in the future, I know it.
Now off to Budapest to hang with Adri’s fam!
MarraYES (I’m sorry for that)
Welcome to Marrakech, Morocco - the Disneyland for people wanting to visit a Northern African country.
Don’t get me wrong - this place is incredible and unforgettable. It is a culture steeped in a rich tradition with a fascinating history. The city is filled with gorgeous palaces and beautiful ruins. Even with the daily temperature reaching the 100’s, Adri and I had no problems spending hours upon hours wandering the city (especially the souks) finding new adventures.
That said, a large portion of the city’s income comes from tourism. So, the locals are absurdly polite and welcoming. At no point did I feel unsafe or unprotected. If someone started to harass me, a simple “no merci” stopped them in their tracks and they left. When I told a fellow tourist of my years spent in NYC, he remarked that I was much more safe in Marrakech than I ever was in NYC. “The worst thing they’ll do to you here is overcharge you by a dollar.”
Don’t get me wrong, we got hustled a couple of times. A man wrapped a snake around my neck and wouldn’t remove it until I paid him the equivalent of $5. I hate snakes and he could tell from a mile away. Also, a tour guide spent 45 minutes of a tour trying to get us to buy argon oil (extracted from goat shit). These were just minor moments that added to the overall experience.
On to the food — a culture so defined by its spices knows how to make incredible dishes. From the chicken Tagine to fresh couscous and kabobs, everything I had was superb — especially the coffee. Every coffee I’ve had on this trip has been the better than the previous coffee.
And now I have officially turned into one of those guys who talks about how American coffee sucks.
Man, this trip has changed me.
Paris was a perfect way to start this journey! I mirror all of the usual sentiments of the city - so romantic, so charming, such great wine, etc.
I’ve heard people say it’s very similar to NYC and I have to agree. I guess that would explain why I felt oddly comfortable taking random walks in unfamiliar neighborhoods. The only difference between the two cities would be the amount of people walking down the streets with sacks of baguettes. There were no mimes but we did see a drunken clown singing “Tequila” like Pee-Wee Herman, scaring little children. A little person told him to stop. It was a magical moment.
Both Adrienne and I agree that we will be returning here soon. If not here, maybe a chateau in the south of France.
Either way, wine will be involved.
After a blissful first year of marriage, my lady and I are finally able to go on our honeymoon. Huzzah!!! We’re spending two months traveling an ENTIRE LOOP AROUND THE WORLD.
This is our current itinerary:
Los Angeles -> France -> Morocco -> Spain -> Hungary -> Germany -> Nepal -> Bhutan -> Thailand -> Singapore -> China -> Japan -> Hawaii -> Home.
I’ll be posting pics, videos, and stories — come back and catch up with our travels!
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THIS IS GOING TO BE NUTS.