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Lake Inle, Myanmar

After Hsipaw, Trish and I headed to Lake Inle, with Beth, the Australian girl we met on our flight to Yangon and with whom we trekked around Hsipaw.  Lake Inle is apparently Myanmar’s most popular tourist destination and the town at the northern part of the lake, Nyaungshwe , was the only place in Myanmar that had a backpacker feel to it, as the streets were lined with travel agencies, bookstores, internet cafes, massages, and restaurants.  Lake Inle sounded beautiful and I was curious about this method of leg rowing that I had heard that the fishermen use.  We arrived in Inle Lake/Nyaungshwe in the middle of the night and were given some mats to sleep on on the floor as no room was immediately available.  The next day, we wandered around and ate at the Pancake Kingdom, which was a delicious respite from rice and curry!  We interneted, ate street food, and I got a one hour long four-hand massage, for only $5.

The next day, we hired a boat (a very long boat) and the three of us cruised around Inle Lake, which was great!  In the morning we saw fishermen.  The men stand on the bow of the boat and with one leg wrapped around the paddle, paddle the boat forwards.  It’s an unusual method, but apparently helps them to see over the reeds in the water, since their view would be obstructed if they were sitting.

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A fisherman on Inle Lake, using the leg rowing method of paddling

3 - Myanmar (551)

Leg rowing on Inle Lake

Our boat driver took us to a number of touristy shops on the lake – a silver shop, a fabric shop, a monastery, etc.  While designed entirely for tourists, each stop afforded us the opportunity to watch craftsman practicing their craft – be it designing silver jewelry, weaving fabric, or building a delicate umbrella.

The frame of an umbrealla

The frame of an umbrealla

Carving the handle for an umbrella

Carving the handle for an umbrella

Creating string/yarn (to ultimately be used on a loom) out of the stem of a lotus flower.  This was my favorite thing to watch/learn this day.

Creating string/yarn (to ultimately be used on a loom) out of the stem of a lotus flower. This was my favorite thing to watch/learn this day.

Jumping cats monastery.  So named because of the cats that reside at the monastery who have been taught to jump through hoops.  The most entertaining part was watching the sheer quantity of people that took pictures of sleeping cats - not cats jumping through hoops, but just sleeping cats who allegedly can jump through a hoop

Jumping cats monastery. So named because of the cats that reside at the monastery who have been taught to jump through hoops. The most entertaining part was watching the sheer quantity of people that took pictures of sleeping cats – not cats jumping through hoops, but just sleeping cats who allegedly can jump through a hoop.

Aside from stopping at touristy little shops, it was fun to cruise around on the boat and pass by floating gardens (made from copious amounts of reed from the lake), or entire villages of stilt houses – built entirely over the lake.  Instead of a school bus, children were transported home on a boat.  Houses had electricity despite being located entirely on the water.

Floating houses on Inle Lake

Floating houses on Inle Lake

Trish and Beth looking quite glam on the boat ride

Trish and Beth looking quite glam on the boat ride

As daylight waned, we watched sunset over the hills beyond the lake before returning to town.

Sunset on Inle Lake

Sunset on Inle Lake

We spent one more relaxing day in town – more interneting, massages, sitting at a coffee shop reading, etc.  It was a great way to end our time in Myanmar.

We eventually made it back to Yangon, enjoyed a very brief afternoon there, walking around, breathing in that familiar, but slightly sickening aroma of betel nut.  Yangon’s sidewalks are stained with red splotches of spit – and the poorest of the locals teeth are stained red from the betel nut that they habitually chew.

Betel nut is prepared on the street in Yangon

Betel nut is prepared on the street in Yangon

After departing Yangon, Trish and I sadly parted ways in Bangkok.  I rushed to enjoy my final night of my trip, only to discover that my flight was cancelled.  I re-booked my flight for a day later and spent an entire day in Bangkok getting 3 massages, eating well, and relaxing by reading and sipping a cocktail.

All-in-all, Myanmar was a great trip and a fantastic country.  The borders only recently opened to tourists, so its not a very developed country, despite the fact that wealthy speculators from Singapore and China are building developments.  The people were consistently very friendly, genuine, not jaded by tourism, and not pushy, which all contributed to a pleasant traveling experience.  The food was good, even if rice and curry three meals a day got a tad repetitive.  We spent about 10-ish days in Myanmar and while I think we could have spent a few more, it was the perfect two-week trip (including our time in Bangkok obtaining our visas.  Myanmar is beautiful, historic, and a bit of a hidden gem!

Trekking outside of Hsipaw

After we left Bagan, we headed via overnight bus (such was our primary way of transportation – we had limited time and it quickly allowed us to get places without losing precious days) to Hsipaw.  I immediately liked Hsipaw – it’s a small hill town and not overly touristy.  Once we arranged a 3 day, 2 day overnight hike, we spent the rest of the day relaxing on the balcony of Mr. Charles Guesthouse.  There, we were pleased to run into Beth, a Australian girl in her early 20s who was on our flight from Bangkok to Yangon.  She decided to join us on our trek and we also got Jordy, also an Australian who we met on our bus ride to Hsipaw to join us as well.  After a day of relaxing, Beth, Trish, and I walked through “the suburban part” of Hsipaw and visited a monastery, and stopped to play with children along the way.  We ate a delicious dinner of Shan noodles and went to bed.


The next day, we woke up and began our trek.  We hiked up and up and up into the mountains, and finally arrived at our first village.  We stayed at our guides’ parents’ house.  This trek was probably my favorite part of Myanmar, if only because it’s fascinating to see how others live.  Their homes are designed with a raised roof (above the main roof) over the fire, so that smoke can escape.  There was no running water, in fact, the UN’s development program had only built a central water spigot a year ago – prior to that, villagers had to walk down to the river to get water.  All food was prepared from scratch (of course).  We dined on rice and a delicious assortment of curries and tea leaf “salad”.


Sipping tea


The family patriarch


Removing a pot from the fire


A man smokes a cigarette through a water pipe

From here, we trekked on to our next village, which was interesting if only because most tourists do a one night overnight trek or a day trip and so these villagers were more in awe of us tourists.  The children would stare while their parents encouraged them to wave at us.  Jordy was smart and brought balloons in town to hand out to the children.  Walking with him through the village was a slow, but very adorable process, as for those children, he was akin to Santa on Christmas Day.


Jordy handing out balloons to children in the village

At this second village, we girls decided to shower, since we hadn’t at the first place.  Showering was in public, of course.  We put on lokis (a tube of material that is worn as a dress or skirt) and bathed by dumping bowls of water that came from a large barrel on ourselves.


A little boy waits for his bath

The most interesting thing about our trek to Hsipaw was simply experiencing a different way of life.  Our meals were delicious, but consistent: rice and curries and veggies (usually tea leaves).  My rough estimation is that each meal took about 3 hours to prepare.  Privacy is fairly non-existent, as many people from one extended family will live under the same roof.  From talking with our guide, it seems that 10-15 people living in one house is fairly typical.  Houses are practical – a year’s supply of rice and wood take precedence over individual bedrooms, specific beds, and certainly privacy.  All members work, including children – normally their job is to take care of livestock (boys), or help with the meals (girls).  The people were incredibly kind and very hospitable.

At the end of our hike, we stopped by a sugar factory, which was fascinating.  I love seeing work in progress for something which is foreign to me (I’ve never been to a sugar factory before), when it’s in its natural, non-touristy, environment.  One of the men offered us sugar cane juice and some candies and when our guide offered money, he declined, saying it was a gift for the visitors.  Genuine generosity is such a much-appreciated gift.


Sugar cane cakes drying in the foreground, while sugar cane juice boils in the background


Pouring the thickened sugar cane juice into a mold so that it can cool and dry before being cut and sold in the market


Kilimanjaro – all 19,341 ft of it!

Kilimanjaro. The roof of Africa. The tallest mountain in Africa. One of the seven summits. Standing atop this behemoth of a mountain has been a goal of mine since I first heard the word, “Kilimanjaro”. The cool thing about Kilimanjaro is that at 19,341 feet above sea-level (that’s 5,895 meters), it is one of the tallest free-standing mountains in the world. In hiking this mountain, you experience 7 unique ecosystems, or another way of looking at it is that you would experience the same climatic change climbing Kilimanjaro as you would if you walked from the equator to one of the poles. Kili has been on my life list for so many years that I’m still tickled pink as I write this, still taking it in that I achieved this long-standing dream of mine. Another goal of mine was to go to 6 of the 7 continents by the age of 30. As my plane touched down in Tanzania, I realized that I was visiting my 30thcountry at the age of 30 (if I didn’t forget any countries in my counting).
Arriving in Africa, the plan was to climb Mt. Kilimanjaro with my friends Arielle, Becky, and Nate. As Arielle and I tore our neatly packed bags apart and re-assembled piles of clothes the night before our climb, we discussed the possibility that one of us might not summit and what we wanted the other to do. We both agreed that the other should continue. The next morning, packed and nervously excited, I went to make sure Becky and Nate were up. When I went to their room, Becky was as sick as a dog and had unfortunately come down with a terrible bug that morning. She put forth a valiant effort, riding along on the uncomfortable bus journey to the Machame Gate for the start of our hike. As we waited for paperwork and the porters to organize, it poured rain. We were supposed to be hiking during the dry season, but yet, the rains came down. Finally it was time to start and Becky made the wise decision of not hiking due to her inability to keep anything – even water – down. Nate, the ever-doting husband, stayed by his wife’s side.
And with that, Arielle and I bade Nate and Becky well and begin our slow ascent. Arielle and I didn’t know each other that well prior to this trip; we had met while traveling in Patagonia last year and only briefly spent time together – and in a group the entire time, so both were pleasantly surprised that conversation flowed so easily and that we had so much in common. Our trusty Assistant Guide, Marame, kept reminding us to drink water, make sure we were ok, and tell us to go, “Pole, pole” (slowly, slowly). We’re both very fit and athletic and were only hiking to ~9,990 feet, so didn’t feel the need to heed his advice.
The first day was hot and by the time we started hiking, the rain had thankfully stopped. We arrived to our campsite in a few hours and since I had heard that the food on Kili was all fried, I was pleased to be given delicious soup and a curry dish for dinner.
Day 2 started off nicely, but a few sprinkles turned into a down-right downpour and we were soaked before we had time to put on our ski pants. As our fingers turned to prunes, we sang Broadway tunes and in spite of the weather and absolute lack of any view, our spirits remained high. We arrived to Shira Camp (~12,600 ft), andhung our clothing to dry in our tent. When we woke in the night to go to the bathroom (we drank copious amounts of water which resulted in constant bathroom stops, which is a healthy way to deal with altitude, but annoying in the middle of the night), I gasped, as it was the first time I got a good view of Kilimanjaro by moonlight. The sky had finally cleared and the mountain, while imposing, was stunningly beautiful. We snapped some photos and went back to sleep. In the morning, we took advantage of the fortuitous 15 minutes of sunlight to dry the last of our wet clothing before taking off.
On our third day of hiking, we started gaining some serious altitude – we were to hike up to ~16,500 ft and then descend to 13,000 ft to sleep that night. Whenever we asked our Guide, Godlisten, for an elevation, he always gave it in meters. On this day, Arielle and I decided to do the math in our head to convert meters to feet. We had both learned this in school, but forgot. Altitude is a funny thing; it certainly isn’t healthy for one’s brain and I find it particularly interesting and perhaps disturbing to witness the effects of it firsthand. It took us about an hour to come up with a math formula and do equations in our head. I don’t remember how we came to this, but at some point, we decided that 16 divided by 60 equaled X (and honestly, who knows if our math was right). All of a sudden, viola, I had a brain-child (so I thought) that I eagerly (as eagerly as one can when all of our energy goes to breathing and walking) exclaimed to Arielle that figuring this out would be simple. All we had to do was say that 16/60 = x/1. If we did that, then 16×1 = 60X. X therefore equaled 16/60, which is right back where we started. Arielle laughed at me as my math skills were horrific in that moment. In fairness, hers were no better. It took us approximately an hour to come up with a conversion from meters to feet that neither of us were sure worked. Though I know it’s really bad for my brain, I do find it fascinating to see the deterioration of basic brain abilities when at altitude.
As we were taking a break from mental math, we were hiking up to Lava Tower (~16,500 ft) and on our way, we passed a seemingly crazy Danish man. He was loud and obnoxious, acting like a drunk. He even admitted to me that it was crazy how drunk he felt. I looked him square in the eye and tried reasoning with him that he was very sick. He got mad at me and ignored his guide’s pleas that he turn around and continued his “drunken” ranting and stormed up the mountain. While we were having our lunch at Lava Tower, we watched as Yen, visibly suffering from HACE (high altitude cerebral edema), tormented his guide, waved his hiking poles at anyone who came near him, and dangerously leaped from rock to rock with a drop of ~50 feet within inches of his hiking boots. We quickly finished our lunches and powered down the trail, aspiring to get as far away from Yen as possible. We learned from other hikers that he fell multiple times and continued to act extremely drunk.
We arrived at Baranco Camp and continued to experience much milder effects of altitude on our brains. We posed for a picture with a sign that had our elevation in both feet and meters. Pointing to the 13,000 ft, Arielle said to me that she would remember that our elevation was 1,300 ft. We laughed because she couldn’t get the elevation right. After relaxing in our tent for a bit, I ran into Yen and the Danish couple that were also in his hiking group. Much calmer, I sat down to talk with Yen about the seriousness of his condition. He didn’t understand why he needed to go down; as he said he felt fine, yes a little drunk, but no headache, otherwise fine. I guess, because I live in Colorado, that my advice actually had an impact. He was told to go down and went down to the bottom of the mountain that night – a decision that undoubtedly saved his life.
Our 4th day of hiking was the most fun! It was New Years Day and Arielle brought noisemakers, which were a huge hit with Godlisten and Marame. As we hiked, we rang in New Years on the east coast, 2 hours later for Denver, and 1 hour after that for San Francisco. We also climbed the Baranco Wall, which was all Class 2 and 3 scrambling, which is my favorite type of hiking to do. How the porters do it with the unwieldy loads upon their heads and sandals (in some cases) on their feet is ridiculously impressive.
We spent the night in the Karanga Valley (as we opted for a 7 day hike as opposed to the “standard” 6 day hike, which is a move I would recommend for anyone). Our guide, Godlisten, was amazing, and always encouraged us to start our days early, which, when the rain poured down as we sat in our dining tent over lunch, we were incredibly indebted to him for his sage advice.
The next day was cold and we felt the altitude as we hiked. Fortunately, our day was short and we arrived at our campsite, Barafu, at 10:30am. As the next day, was our summit day, we were instructed to stay in our tent and rest all day. While in our tent, it started to snow and lightening. We learned that this was the first time in 3 years that the mountain had lightening and the first time in 5 years that there was snow this time of year. Lucky us.
We ate our dinner early and went to bed around 5pm and were awoken at 10:30pm. We started hiking at 11:30pm as snow came down. After about 2 hours of hiking, the snow ceased, the clouds parted and we could see city lights from the town of Moshi, thousands of feet below. For two hours, we enjoyed good weather. Hiking was, of course, laborious. I tried drinking a lot of water, but that in and of itself was an exhausting exercise. It went something like this. Ok, I want water. Breathe. Breathe. Suck air out of water line. Breath. Breath. Take a sip and swallow. Breath. Take a sip and swallow. Breathe. Breathe. Blow air back into water tube (to prevent freezing). Breathe. Breathe. Breathe. Every single breath took effort. Getting water was exhausting as it diverted energy I needed for walking to another task. After 2 hours of clear skies, the snow re-commenced and our slow caravan continued. About 45 minutes from the summit rim, our guide, Godlisten, felt dizzy and contemplated turning around. We tried encouraging him to do so, but he rested for a few minutes and continued. Only when we were 15 minutes from the summit rim, did we learn that once on the summit, we had to walk for another 45 minutes to get to the actual summit – another 200 meters in elevation gain. When you’re at 18,000 something feet, the thought of having to walk an extra 45 minutes, no matter how “flat” it is is incredibly disheartening and demotivating. As I wondered to myself if Stella Point (at 5700-something meters) was good enough for me, day began to break. We finished our short break and robotically continued on our quest for the summit.
The temperature was freezing, the snow was blinding, and my mind was completely void of thoughts and focused solely and entirely on my only two tasks at hand – sluggishly putting one foot in front of the other and breathing. Within minutes of our trek across the mountain’s rim, Arielle and I both donned the weather’s defacto mascara: freezing white snow. Five minutes from the proper summit, Arielle turned to me and said, “I need some encouragement.” I lamely squeaked out, “you can do it; we’re almost there.” It’s hard to describe how utterly gassed we were, but I remember it vividly. Two minutes later, and through the sideways snow, clouds, and wind, I saw a cluster of people gathered. Tears welled up in my eyes as we approached the sign that advertised the summit. Even though the sign wasn’t the one I had recognized from so many other’s summit photos, I believed Godlisten when he told us we did it. Godlisten and Marame hugged us and we smiled. I grabbed my camera and we impatiently waited for our turn to take our photos with the sign at the summit.
I feel like every photo I’ve ever seen from someone at the summit of Kilimanjaro is on a beautiful sunny morning, whereas our view (and photos) give no indication that we’re on the top of Africa’s tallest mountain. We stayed at the summit for precisely 5 minutes, and elated because of our accomplishment, our feet felt lighter and we eagerly began the long descent. Our 6thday of hiking totaled about 4,000 feet of elevation gain and 9,000 feet of descending. We returned to our campsite from the day before with pounding headaches, and for me, a queasy stomach. I hadn’t had enough food or water and got a bit sick. Because of that and our nagging headaches, our guide let us rest for an hour and a half before he prodded us to continue down the mountain. A bit of sleep cured our ailments as my stomach recovered and our headaches had disappeared. Hiking down to Mweka Camp was downright miserable. As we descended, snow turned into a wet, cold, miserable rain. We were exhausted, our knees hurt, and we were cold and wet. We slept well that night and finished our hike by 9am the next morning. Happy to be done, we celebrated with an aptly named Kilimanjaro beer and dried our wet belongings in the sun as we waited for our mini-van to pick us up.
In sum, Kilimanjaro was awesome! Even though the summit was exhausting, it was amazing. This was definitely the hardest physical challenge I’ve ever undertaken in my life, despite my thinking that Kili would be “easy”. It was hard, but I’m so happy that I did it as I loved nearly every moment of it (many moments on summit day notwithstanding). For anyone who is in reasonably good shape, this mountain is totally do-able. For the climb, I can’t recommend Good Earth, and in particular, Godlisten and Marame enough.

Northern Sumatra

We spent 4 very relaxing days on Lake Toba. One day, five of us rented a large boat and went “rowing”. The next day, we rented bicycles and rode to the northern end of the island through Batak villages and saying hello to every single child that saw us pass by. Indonesia has to be on of the most smiley and friendly countries I’ve ever been to. Everyone says hello when I pass. Oftentimes, I/we will get stopped dead in our tracks for an English conversation. The majority of conversations go like this:

“Hello miss! My friends and I would like to practice our English with you.”

“Of course; no problem. Hello!”

“What is your name?

“My name is Erin. Your name is? … Nice to meet you.”

“Where are you from miss?”

“I am from America.”

“What are your hobbies?”

“I like to travel, ski and cook.”

“OK miss, thank you! Can you please sign my book? May I have a picture with you?”

And that’s literally every conversation, although now I can say my name and where I’m from in Indonesian, so I do that.

After our long day of bike riding (we probably rode for 25 or 30 miles), we had dinner, watched a local Batak dance performance. Niki’s birthday was the next day, so we ended up celebrating it a day earlier and went to the one bar on the island with a bunch of local guys from our guesthouse, where I probably smoked about 3 cigarettes worth of second-hand smoke and listened to 90s rap.

While in Lake Toba, we added another guy to our group, Koos. He’s really cool – also Dutch and is on his way back to Holland after spending 5.5 years living in Papua doing water projects. It’s really interesting chatting with him about his experiences working for a NGO. Our nightly routine has been playing cards or the game Mafia – we’re always looking to recruit a few more people to make the game more interesting. And the locals every night play songs on the guitar and we all sing along. Their ability to pick up western songs and so quickly is really amazing.

After Lake Toba, we headed to the jungle, to Bukit Lwang. We’re staying right on a river, the other side of the river is a national park. The major activity to do on the river is tubing. So, the first day we got here, we rented tubes and floated down the river for nearly 3 hours. It was a perfect mix of rapids and calm stretches, but just stunningly beautiful and really, really fun. It was my favorite activity that I’ve done thus far. The next day, we went on a full-day trek through the jungle in hopes of seeing orangutans in the wild, as orangutans are now only native to the islands of Sumatra and Borneo. We saw some spiky-haired gray monkeys immediately who got very close to us – at one point I was bending over trying to take a photo and a monkey jumped over my back! About an hour later, we spotted a mother and baby orangutan. And after lunch, yet another mother and baby. It was really, really cool! It was great being so close to them and seeing them in their nature environment. Plus, any sort of monkey or ape is my favorite animal to watch, so I was really happy with our experience.

The next day, we decided to go tubing again – it was so much fun the first day. Tubing is fantastic – you float along and pass water buffalo and women doing laundry and children playing. At one point, 3 buck naked boys come running towards the river and jump in and swim alongside us for a bit. We really got local and starting bathing in the river too. The “shower” in our guesthouse left a lot to be desired and the bathroom constantly reeked, so we took to bathing in the river like the locals. It’s a very efficient, if public, way to bathe. And after a few days playing in the jungle, we headed to a hill town, Berastagi, where tomorrow, we’re going to climb a volcano! Hopefully we’ll actually make it up this time…