Barefoot Dentistry: Not As Horrifying As it Sounds

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The sign outside the second-floor clinic instructs all visitors to remove their shoes before entering, and the staircase landing is littered with sandals. OK, apparently this is a thing. I briefly consider turning around and leaving, but I’m bolstered by the fact that I’m wearing my lucky Harry Potter underwear. Also, I just saw my first two sacred cows, which seems like a good omen. I’m about to have dental work in India, and I’m starting to think this was possibly a Very Bad Idea™.

I was totally serious about the cow thing, by the way. They're everywhere. I was also serious about the underwear thing but I'm not posting pictures so stop asking.
I was totally serious about the cow thing, by the way. They’re everywhere. I was also serious about the underwear thing but I’m not posting pictures so stop asking.

I feel better as soon as I step inside the clinic. Everything is clean and modern and sterile. I’m handed an iPad on which to check in. The receptionist has perfect hair and looks like he just stepped out of a J.Crew catalog, except he’s also barefoot.

As soon as I finish signing in and taking an extremely unflattering picture of myself with the office tablet, J. Crew leads me up another flight of stairs to the exam room, which is similarly spotless but full of Buddha statues and a small radio blaring Indian pop music.

Buddha statues = instant calm. Take note, Western dentists.
Buddha statues = instant calm. Take note, Western dentists.

Also, is it a bad sign when your dentist has the Doctor’s Book of Home Remedies on his office bookshelf? Asking for a friend.

Dr. Narayan cuts right to the chase, asking me what’s going on. I go into show and tell mode, and he only interrupts to ask a few questions. He can tell right away that I’ve been putting this off for some time, and that there was trauma to the tooth in question. He smirks when I tell him the story of being head-butted in the face by a rambunctious dog while drinking a beer.

“Well,” he says pushing back from his desk, “let’s have a look.” I pad along barefoot behind him into the treatment room. This is probably my last chance to bolt and I’m totally missing it.

The room is as bright and sterile as any Western dentist office, and he uses all the usual tools for the exam, but there is no forgetting where I am. He explains every step of what’s needed in distinctly Indian terms. The root of the tooth is like a sleeping tiger. Bacteria rise up like warriors. Etc. I try to close my eyes during the exam but he gently admonishes me to keep them open. “I know you are scared. Watching what goes on will remove the fear.”

Here's a lovely flower because I understand that absolutely no one wants to see a picture of me having dental work done.
Here’s a lovely flower because I understand that absolutely no one wants to see a picture of me having dental work done.

It only takes a few minutes for Dr. Narayan to decide I need a root canal and we should begin immediately. OK, hold up, I only psyched myself up for an exam. I was not prepared for this at all. “You’re already here,” he says, reading my mind again. “Best just to get it over with.” He’s right, of course, but I must not look entirely convinced. “I promise it won’t hurt a bit, and you won’t even need any anesthesia.” It’s not polite to call your doctor a big fat liar, so I tell him to go ahead.

As it turns out, he wasn’t a big fat liar at all. I would hereby like to insist that every dentist I’ve ever seen to go to India and take a few lessons from this guy. Especially Dr. Kmon, who was a really big jerk to me when I was six.

Fifteen minutes later, having experienced zero pain whatsoever, I was on my way. Who would have guessed that one Indian doctor could cure a decades old fear of the dentist’s chair?

I ended up going back for three additional visits for a follow-up, a temporary crown, and a permanent crown. My entire cost for four office visits, a root canal, and a porcelain crown was $230. I did a little bit of cost comparison with US averages, and it appears that a root canal on a front tooth can cost in the neighborhood of $900. If you need a crown, expect that to be over $1000. You might have insurance that minimizes your out of pocket cost, but if not, that’s a huge expense. I suddenly understand why so many of my American friends have chosen to have their dental work done overseas. For the cost of one root canal and crown in the US, you can fly to the dental tourism spot of your choice, stay in a nice hotel for a couple of weeks, enjoy a lovely vacation, and get some top quality dental work done while you’re there.

Worried about getting dental work overseas? I was, too (especially the whole barefoot thing, but I got over it) but I did a ton of research and got personal recommendations from other travelers, and I couldn’t be happier with the experience. The dentist I chose came highly recommended with over 18 years of experience and training in both India, Europe, and North America, and has trained dentists all over the world. I hope I don’t get too much hate mail from American dentists, but I wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again and now I completely understand why so many people have chosen to travel for their medical and dental procedures instead of paying outrageous prices at home.

Have you ever traveled for a medical or dental procedure? Tell me about your experiences in the comments!

Hotel Review: Max Wadiya

I had the pleasure of being hosted by the phenomenal Max Wadiya hotel for this stay, but, as always, all opinions are my own.

Sitting by the ocean, drinking a king coconut, has proved to be the best medicine I’ve tried so far. I’ve been sick for a week before arriving in Ambalangoda, but I start to feel better almost immediately. There is no such thing as stress at Max Wadiya, and somehow my body knows it. I can feel the tension melting out of my body as I sit on the wide tiled porch of this coconut jungle by the sea.

You feel more relaxed already, don't you?
You feel more relaxed already, don’t you?

I’m pretty sure I have this island paradise all to myself as I have seen no one else since my arrival, except Ranjan the manager and the team of barefoot staff boys who scurry around, mopping and delivering refreshing drinks like a silent team of gentleman ninjas.

The in-house chef is currently preparing my lunch, which will be served in a terracotta roofed gazebo near the edge of the sand and I’m worried I might be too distracted by the view of the enormous waves to eat. One of the barefoot boys has spent the last ten minutes carefully arranging tableware and polishing glasses because everything at Max Wadiya must always be perfect.

I can’t quite decide what I should do after lunch: walk along the beach or lounge by the pool? This will prove to be the most difficult decision I have to make at Max Wadiya, whose motto is “No Watch, No Wallet, No Shoes, No Menus.” No watch, because there are no set times for anything. Want to sleep late? You’re not going to miss breakfast. Prefer to get up with the sun and walk on the beach before breakfast? They’ll be ready when you are. No wallet, because your stay is all-inclusive. No shoes, because who wears shoes in an island paradise? I kicked off my flip flops when I arrived and didn’t put them back on until I left (and even that was somewhat grudgingly!) No menus because you don’t order; the chef will surprise and delight you with a creative presentation of whatever is fresh from the market and the sea that day. Everything is catered to your taste and ensuring you have an absolutely flawless experience.

Last night’s lack of sleep is catching up with me fast. I have a feeling tonight will bring the best night’s sleep I’ve had in quite a while. There is nothing like drifting off to the sound of the ocean right outside your door. (Spoiler alert: I was right; I slept like absolute royalty in the Tangerine Suite’s heavenly four-poster bed, with its crisp, high end linens. There was definitely no pea under the luxurious mattress.)

Max Wadiya is the kind of place where you use words like “laze” and “puttering.” I find myself putting down my notebook every so often just to get up and stretch a bit, stare out at the ocean, listen to the fountain in the koi pond in the courtyard, notice the breeze and the tropical greenery as far as the eye can see. You get the feeling nothing has ever been done in a rush here. The hotel grounds nudge right up against the water’s edge, so the air is always hazy with ocean mist, giving the whole place a soft, dream-like quality.

If Walt Disney were to open a Sri Lankan resort, I think it would look a lot like Max Wadiya, with its pineapple parrot garnishes and frangipani blossoms drifting gently into the saltwater pool.

I had heard that the food at Max Wadiya was magnificent, and I expected it to be good, but I had no idea I was in for such a feast. I had warned Ranjan when I arrived that I generally have the appetite of a small child and I was recovering from an illness so there was no need to go overboard at mealtimes. He paid absolutely no heed and utterly spoiled me with the freshest, most incredible meals I’ve had since arriving in Sri Lanka.

Lunch on the first day was all I needed to regain my lost appetite from being sick: a chopped salad of lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and red onion in a weightless vinaigrette, new potatoes and haricots verts roasted in fragrant garlic, and lightly glazed fish, grilled to flaky perfection.

 

Everything is as perfect, graceful, and gracious as if Martha Stewart has taken up residence on a South Asian island. Every meal that follows is equally splendid, carefully arranged and garnished and presented; served al fresco next to the sand, where the booming waves drown out all of the noise from the nearby road and make you feel completely alone in a tropical paradise.

My morning walk along the beach- not a soul to be found.
My morning walk along the beach- not a soul to be found.

After lunch, Ranjan gives me a tour of the property, which consists of the original villa, full of antiques and incredible sunset views out over the ocean; and a separate wing with two spacious and gorgeously decorated suites. There’s a saltwater pool tucked into a secluded coconut grove, and a pavilion where yoga, massage, and Ayurveda treatments can be arranged, if you’re so inclined (and you probably will be, if you can pry yourself out of the bathwater-warm pool).

Our last stop is Ranjan’s pride and joy: the cement tank from which he has released over 7000 baby sea turtles from eggs that he has hatched. He beams as he explains that locals from all over Ambalangoda bring him turtle eggs from endangered nests, and he personally tends to the eggs and releases the newly hatched turtles into the sea in the predawn darkness. The opulent luxury of Max Wadiya would be reason enough to visit, but knowing that your vacation dollars are going to support the endangered turtle population of this beautiful island is a wonderful feeling.

Every sunset is a little bit different. Collect them all!
Every sunset is a little bit different. Collect them all!

Do you have “Imagine I’m royalty living in a tropical paradise and being waited on hand and foot by the most gracious and accommodating staff imaginable” on your bucket list? (Hint: if you don’t, you should really add it!) Max Wadiya is the perfect place to check it off. If you decide to pay this magical oasis a visit, tell them Leslie sent you, and be sure to send me a picture!

Max Wadiya is located at 147 Galle Road (Parrot Junction) Urawatte, Ambalangoda, Sri Lanka. Find more information or book your stay at www.maxwadiya.com.

Ranjan (center, blue shirt) and the staff of Max Wadiya stand ready to make your tropical vacation dreams come true.
Ranjan (center, blue shirt) and the staff of Max Wadiya stand ready to make your tropical vacation dreams come true.

Good Morning, India!

My first Indian breakfast. That bowl of hot looking stuff is called sambar but I just call it fire soup and it's delicious even if it makes smoke come out of my ears every day.
My first Indian breakfast. That bowl of hot looking stuff is called sambar but I just call it fire soup and it’s delicious even if it makes smoke come out of my ears every day.

Daybreak on my first morning in India. I’ve been up since 3:30 a.m. after getting less than four hours of sleep. Thanks, jet lag.

I’ve already used the four days’ worth of wifi codes provided by the hotel. I’ve been here for 9 hours. Oops. I’m already reconsidering my decision not to rent a personal wifi hotspot “because I’ll have access at the hotel so I won’t really need it.”

I discover at 5:00 a.m. that there’s a mosque somewhere nearby. Some people would be annoyed by the early wakeup call, but I love it. The sound of the adhan breaking through the predawn darkness brings me back to my first solo trip, when I discovered I’d booked a Mandalay hotel room next door to a mosque, and sat on the wide marble windowsill, hugging my knees and listening to the Muslim call to prayer for the first time.

Getting to the hotel last night was an adventure. The only thing more exciting than Indian traffic is Indian traffic at night, in the rain, while your taxi driver is texting because he can’t find your hotel. Travel Tip: In addition to your hotel’s address, make sure you have their phone number handy before you travel. Many cabs in Asia don’t have GPS and your driver will want to call the hotel to get directions before setting out. Don’t rely on the promise of free wifi in the airport to pull up this information as most Indian wifi hotspots require you to have a working Indian phone number at which to receive an access code by text message.

It’s such a beautiful morning I’ve dragged my wooden desk chair out to the balcony to listen to the city wake up. I’m surrounded by Bougainvillea bushes and thin-leafed trees I’ve never seen before. It’s barely dawn but the traffic already sounds heavy on the main road. A flock of pigeons on the roof of the building next door is making a huge racket, and a local woman in a blue tee shirt is jogging around the block before the oppressive heat that is surely on its way.

Good morning, India! I could easily make this my office for the next few weeks.
Good morning, India! I could easily make this my office for the next few weeks.

Good morning, India. I could sit here all day but there is adventure to be had!

 

The Monthly Bucket- April 2017

Hey Adventurers! Is it just me or has April absolutely flown by?

Where in the world am I? Hello from Bangalore (Bengaluru), India! I’ve been here for two weeks and I absolutely love this glorious, chaotic mess of a city. This morning I walked straight into a cow on my way to Starbucks and that pretty much sums up Bangalore.

Items checked off the bucket list this month: Can you believe…none?? Apparently it’s really time consuming to uproot your life, get rid of all of your stuff, and traipse to the other side of the world. But don’t fret- I’m on my way to Sri Lanka in a few days to explore some gorgeous old temples (bucket list item #542!)

Highlight of the month: Hopping off a rickshaw in the middle of a traffic jam on a Sunday afternoon in Bangalore only to find myself in the middle of a giant Hindu flower festival.

Hindu parents hold their children up to the sacred statues inside the flower chariots for a blessing.
Hindu parents hold their children up to the sacred statues inside the flower chariots for a blessing.

Lowlight of the month: Crying in the parking lot of the doggie summer camp where I left Murphy Ann until I get back to the US at the end of July.

Best meal: Chicken Tacos at Tequila’s Town, Savannah, Georgia.  Honorable Mentions: The Squawking Goat chicken biscuit at Maple Street Biscuit Company, St. Augustine, Florida; the Cuban sandwich at El Ambia in Melbourne, Florida;

Seriously, these tacos. I can't even tell you. Just get in the car and head for Savannah. It doesn't matter where you are.
Seriously, these tacos. I can’t even tell you. Just get in the car and head for Savannah. It doesn’t matter where you are.
I'd probably eat a soggy piece of cardboard if you put goat cheese on it, but trust me- this is better.
I’d probably eat a soggy piece of cardboard if you put goat cheese on it, but trust me- this is better.

New blog posts published:  Have Dog Will Travel in which Murphy Ann the adventure dog takes over the blog while we adventure around the Southeast US. 

What I learned:

  • You never need as much stuff as you think you do.
  • If you can survive Bangalore traffic in an auto rickshaw, you can survive anything.
  • There aren’t any walk signals telling you when to go, so you just have to watch for an opening, take a deep breath, make peace with your creator, and plunge (ooh, life metaphor alert!).  
  • If you see a big crowd of people outside a sketchy looking food stand, go there. Bonus points if there’s no menu. Use hand gestures and look hungry. 
  • You never realize how much you take air conditioning and unlimited ice for granted until you don’t have them anymore.

 

What I read: Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed. I loved this because Cheryl is quite possibly the only adventurer to have more travel catastrophes than I do.
What’s next? Heading to Sri Lanka on May 2nd for three months of temples, beaches, elephants, leopards, and adventure.

Well, I’m heading back out to explore more of this beautiful city before it’s time to leave. You should head to the comments and tell me where in the world you’re adventuring this month!

The Monthly Bucket- March 2017

 

March Adventure Bucket Collage

Hey Adventurers! Do anything exciting this month? Here’s what I’ve been up to:

Where in the world am I? Currently traveling around the Southeast USA: Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama.

My beloved Adventure Dog, Murphy Ann, turned 9 years old and we went on a two week road trip to celebrate. I’m not sure which one of us had more fun.

 

We had quite a few picnics in the back of the car. Can you tell she full expects me to share my french fries with her?
We had quite a few picnics in the back of the car. Can you tell she fully expects me to share my french fries with her?
I could have wandered around the grounds of the Hermitage in Nashville for days.
I could have wandered around the grounds of the Hermitage in Nashville for days.
Savannah is such a dog friendly city! We had so much fun wandering around and exploring.
Savannah is such a dog friendly city! We had so much fun wandering around and exploring.

Items checked off the bucket list this month:

  • #596 Taking Murphy Ann to her ancestral homeland at Mount Vernon- Did you know that the American Foxhound breed was created by George Washington? I’ve always wanted to take her home to see where her ancestors came from! They made the biggest fuss over her and were so sweet. 
Murphy Ann making herself at home on the grounds of Mount Vernon.
Murphy Ann making herself at home on the grounds of Mount Vernon.
  • #219 Visit the Hermitage, home of Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson's Hermitage, Nashville, Tennessee
Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage, Nashville, Tennessee
  • #376 Search for gems at Crater of Diamonds, Murfreesboro, Arkansas- I’m sad to report that we didn’t find a single diamond, and the dog who spends her days gleefully digging holes in the backyard and destroying my garden couldn’t be convinced to dig a single hole in the diamond crater. We did, however, have a great time looking. One of us had a great time splashing in mud puddles, but I’m not naming names. 
Crater of Diamonds State Park, Murfreesboro, Arkansas
Crater of Diamonds State Park, Murfreesboro, Arkansas

Highlight of the month: Listening to live country music in Nashville, outside by a fire, on a gorgeous spring evening, drinking moonshine and eating Nashville hot chicken.

All the best parts of Music City.
All the best parts of Music City.

Lowlight of the month: Camping on a blueberry farm in Jacksonville, Florida. Sounds great, until the temperature drops to 40 degrees and your dainty Southern behind nearly freezes to death. Also, sleeping on the ground? I used to do that with no problem in my early 20s. Let’s not talk about how long ago that was. I’m not ashamed to say we left the campground a night early and checked into a hotel. 

Best meal: Buttermilk Fried Chicken and Gravy with hoecakes and apricot butter at the Ice Plant, St. Augustine, Florida.

I didn't even know what a hoecake was before this meal. Turns out it's basically the love child of a pancake and a biscuit, and it's amazing.
I didn’t even know what a hoecake was before this meal. Turns out it’s basically the love child of a pancake and a biscuit, and it’s amazing.

New blog posts published:  Athens is Magic (Delphi is Pretty Great, Too)

What I learned: The best way to make your dog a good traveler is just to travel with them and let them get used to life on the road. Even if they do spend the first few days trying to climb onto your lap and nearly crashing the car. Frozen peanut butter Kongs help. Screaming, not so much.

What I read: “Born a Crime” by Trevor Noah. I listened to this audio book, read by the author, during my road trip and it was so engrossing, hours of driving passed by without notice. Part heartbreaking, part screamingly funny- just do yourself a favor and pick it up. 

What’s next? Leaving April 19th for Bangalore, India, followed by 3 months in Sri Lanka. It should surprise no one that I haven’t even started packing yet. 

Those are the highlights of my month- how about yours? Drop me a line in the comments and let me know what exciting things you got up to in March.

Athens is Magic (Delphi is Pretty Great, Too)

February 13, 2013- The first thing I do when my plane lands in Athens is to check into my hotel and take a taxi to the famous hammam baths I’d heard so much about. What could be better after a 16 hour flight than relaxing in a steam room and getting a revivifying massage?

Lots of things, as it turns out.

I’m not sure when I realized that the hammam experience wasn’t for me- possibly the very moment I saw the awkward wooden clogs and the tiny dinner napkin in which I was expected to clothe myself before maneuvering my way down the slippery stone steps into the steam room. I summoned up enough grace not to fall and break any bones, which is probably as good as it gets when you’re me. The steam room itself is a large communal space into which the host welcomes you by tossing a bucket of hot water over your head. (Why am I always traveling places where people throw buckets of water at me?) I expect this is meant to be relaxing, but actually just washes one of my contact lenses out of my eye and I spend the next ten minutes frantically trying to shove the godforsaken thing back into place. I’m pretty sure this activity has torn the lens because my eye immediately begins to burn and water profusely.

So this is nice.

From my spot on the stone bench, I can just barely see into the massage room where other guests are called in to be pummeled by large Greek men while lying on another stone slab. I watch as a muscular young man goes in ahead of me (he’s a lot more graceful in his wooden sandals. Probably he’s done this before.) He cries out in pain within seconds of starting his “relaxing” massage.

You know what? It turns out I’m actually not that interested in the whole hammam experience after all.  When nobody is looking I scamper back up the stairs to get dressed and make my escape.

I’m convinced I memorized the cab route to the hammam so I can make my way back on foot, but I’m wrong about this, too. I wander around Athens lost for about two hours before I give up and hail a cab to take me back. There’s probably an ocean of delicious Greek food within walking distance of my hotel, but because I’m tired and cranky I just order room service and immediately go into a coma.

…until 1:30 a.m., when I wake up with a splitting headache, wash down some Advil with a $12 minibar Coke, and wait for breakfast.

 

February 14, 2013- I already know today is going to be a magnificent day. I’m staying at the Royal Olympic Hotel and I’ve booked myself the Athenian Panorama Room, which has giant windows looking out over the Temple of Zeus. The view is positively breathtaking as day breaks and the massive columns come into view. The day is drizzly and overcast, but that does nothing to diminish the impressive view.

Breakfast is served in the rooftop restaurant, and although I would normally skip a hotel breakfast and go in search of something better, I’m starving to death and this turns out to be a wonderful circumstance. I’ve never had a better breakfast anywhere, hotel or otherwise. Fresh Greek yogurt with honey and “strawberry marmalade,” coffee, fresh squeezed orange juice, three kinds of cheese, ham, air-dried salami, turkey, hard-boiled eggs… I *may* have made three trips through the buffet line. Don’t judge me.

The first thing I notice once I bundle myself up and set out in the cold drizzle are all the homeless dogs looking for food, shelter, and companionship. I stop and pet all of them and try not to cry.

The first item on my agenda is the Acropolis Museum. I’ve gotten there too early, so I wander around while I’m waiting. I hear chanting coming from a Greek Orthodox church and it’s mesmerizing, so I stand outside and listen even when the rain starts coming down harder. Athens is already amazing.

I’m the first person inside the museum when it opens, and I immediately head to the top floor to work my way back down to the beginning. I have the entire second floor of marble busts and faces to myself to examine completely alone for at least 30 minutes as the guards are all huddled in a corner, chatting, and never realize anyone was there until I’m right on top of them. The experience is pure magic- as the title of one volume in their book shop attests, you can actually hear the marble breathing.

My plan to see the museum first in hopes that the rain will let up before I visit the Acropolis completely backfires, as it is raining even harder by the time I get back outside. The Acropolis is still amazing even when you see it in a monsoon. It’s pretty treacherous going up and down marble steps in the pouring rain, but as I did not break any vital body parts, I still consider it 100% worthwhile.

After an hour-long visit I’m frozen to the bone and soaked like a rat, so I shuffle my way back to the hotel and take a scalding hot bath and a nap with the curtains open so I can be sure to wake up to the incredible view again.

I wake up ravenous again (this is going to be a constant theme on this trip, FYI), wander down to the Plaka and have a marvelous plate of souvlaki at a small cafe. I get lost, again, walking back to the hotel but I find a great hot chocolate shop and some of the best baklava I’ve ever had, so this makes it OK.

 

February 15, 2013- I have booked myself a bus tour to Delphi today so I can check one more thing off my bucket list- seeing the bronze charioteer statue at the Delphi museum. Normally I’m not a fan of bus tours- I like to explore things at my own pace and there’s really nothing worse than being crammed on a bus with a bunch of people who may or may not share your views on personal space or hygiene. I’m pleasantly surprised today, though- there are only 8 people in the entire group and the tour guide is magnificent.

So, the bronze charioteer? Absolutely worth the trip. The museum isn’t terribly crowded (yay, off-season travel!) and I get to sit and stare at him in amazement for quite a long time with only the museum security guard for company.

Bronze Charioteer Delphi Greece

I’m even more amazed by Delphi itself. The stadium, the amphitheater, the temple of Apollo. It’s all breathtaking, and the cool mountain air smells like pine needles and sunshine.

Delphi Greece

Delphi Greece

We stop for lunch at a small taverna.  Lunch is nothing special, but the wine is good, and sitting next to the fire is lovely. The whole bus group shares a communal table and I’m happy to report everyone has perfectly acceptable standards of hygiene. There’s a young couple from China, a family with two teenage daughters from Saskatchewan, and a middle-aged Indian man from Leicester. We all swap travel stories until it’s time to get back on the bus.

On the way back to Athens we stop for 20 minutes in the town of Arahova, which looks like an Alpine village dropped in Greece. Really lovely. I immediately add a Christmastime visit to my bucket list.

I’ve done so much uphill walking, my calves feel like they’re carved out of marble. I go to sleep as soon as the bus drops me back off at my hotel and I’m out cold for seven hours. I miss dinner, wake up at 3am, starving, and drink another real-sugar Coke out of the minibar. My internal clock is never going to recover.

February 16, 2013- It’s the first really lovely day since I arrived in Athens- the sun even comes out for a bit. I take advantage of this by seeing some of the gorgeous outdoor areas. First up is Athens’ First Cemetery, a sprawling marble metropolis of the city’s well-heeled dead. Incredible statuary and mausoleums, including one three-story domed masterpiece. Breathtaking, even if it is a bit crumbling and surrounded by scaffolding. I see something neat, too- what look at first like picture frames sitting on the end of a tomb turn out to be made of marble, so you can make Grandma’s crypt look just like her old fireplace mantel.

The care Greeks lavish on their family graves is extremely touching. Everywhere you look, even in the oldest sections, you see fresh flowers, lit candles, burning incense, and family members busily tending to their plots.

For a taphophile like me, it’s great morning outing. I’d put this cemetery up against any of the nicest I’ve seen anywhere. I think for the millionth time that I really need to write a travel guide for people who love cemeteries.

Athens First Cemetery

Athens First Cemetery

Athens First Cemetery

Athens First Cemetery

Athens First Cemetery

Athens First Cemetery

Next I head to the National Gardens. They may have been designed by Queen Amalia,  but the cemetery was a much better sight. The gardens do have a goat and rabbit sanctuary, which is nice, but the whole place still smells vaguely like piss.

After a quick stop at a pet shop to buy some Greek dog toys for Murphy Ann, I’m off to see the Street of Tombs at Kerameikos. Extremely impressive- a cemetery pre-dating Jesus Christ by 400+ years where Pericles gave a funeral oration for the first casualties of the Peloponnesian War.

After a quick (by Greek standards) lunch of meatballs in tomato sauce, bread, and wine in the Plaka, I get a free 15 minute walk through the Ancient Agora as they are about to close for the day.

 

February 17, 2013- It’s cold out, it’s still raining, and I’ve found a lovely warm cafe with cozy nook seat couches, great cappuccino, and Meatloaf on the stereo. Never leaving.  It’s almost 11am on my last day in my new favorite city and the weather exactly matches my feelings about leaving. Sofia the barista (and in my opinion, the maker of the world’s best cappuccinos) has invited me back at 8:00 tonight for a going-away-party. Typical Greek hospitality at its finest.

I spend the rest of the afternoon wandering around Monastiraki & buy a replica of the head of the Delphic charioteer to take home. I get lost, but find the most darling little dive of a restaurant without a single tourist in sight. I take this as a good sign and order the exohikio- roast pork stuffed with creamy feta, tomatoes, and green peppers. It’s incredible, and washed down with quite a lot of Greek wine. I might be in love.

I’m super bummed about heading back home tomorrow and wish I had planned a much longer trip. I came to Athens thinking I would check a couple of things off my bucket list and move on. Turns out I fell in love instead.

How NOT to visit Rwanda

Gorgeous Rwanda landscape
Gorgeous Rwanda landscape

May 24, 2010- I make it across the border into Rwanda in one piece, which is no small miracle considering the state of the mountain roads between Bwindi and Cyanika. I doubt they’re much to write home about ordinarily and last night’s torrential rain really did a number on them. There were landslides all over, plus huge mud craters and fallen trees. The view of the rice terraces, however, is absolutely breathtaking.

Rice terraces and giant road craters
Rice terraces and giant road craters

Immigration is relatively painless and I’m handed off to my driver on the other side of the Rwandan border. He keeps asking me if I know I have to “pay some money” to go track gorillas tomorrow. I can’t seem to get him to understand that I won’t be doing that- I’ve already gone gorilla tracking in Uganda, after all, and I’m sure nothing is going to top that experience.

The first thing that strikes me as we set out to Kinigi: the roads here are phenomenal. They’re PAVED and everything. I feel like I’ve just rediscovered civilization.

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My plan for my only full day in Kinigi is to hike to Dian Fossey’s grave at the Gorilla Cemetery in the Karisoke Research Center. When I wake up before dawn, the temperature has plummeted overnight and it’s pouring rain. Not normal pouring rain, either- Africa rain, which is different enough that 80s bands wrote songs about it. It really is a spectacle when the jungle skies open up. I’m running a fever, and my aching joints let me know there is going to be no soaking wet 12 mile hike happening today. Here’s a sad fact about trying to be Indiana Jones when you have an autoimmune disease: sometimes your body just says no, and there is no appeals process. I’ve exhausted myself into a flare up, and I’m not going to be able to do the cool thing that brought me to Rwanda in the first place. To say I’m disappointed is an understatement.

Although I can never quite shake the guilty feeling from “wasting” a day of travel, I have to admit- I end up spending most of the day under the covers, letting the torrential downpour on the metal roof of my little jungle cabin lull me into the best sleep of the entire trip, and that helps immensely.

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Note: this is not my little cabin, but isn’t the landscape incredible?

The rain lets up before dinner and I decide to take a walk around what passes for downtown. This idea is short lived, as I am immediately set upon by a group of schoolchildren asking for money, trying to touch my hair, and asking if they can have my camera. Normally in a situation like this you would just ignore the kids, keep walking, and they would move on. Not these kids. I’m too sick to put up a fight, so I just turn around and go back to the resort for another nap.

Rwanda

Rwanda

Dinnertime- not everything on the awkwardly translated menu makes sense, but I think I’ll try the “baked chicken with cheese”. The kitchen lady shakes her head “no,” so apparently I can’t have that. Instead I order the “spaghetti maman mia,” whatever that is. (Turns out that it’s awful. That’s all you need to know.)

It gets colder. I convince myself I have pneumonia. I’m so cold I talk myself out of showering just so I don’t have to get undressed. The pile of dead bugs in the shower helps me convince myself.

I can’t stop daydreaming about waffles.

The power doesn’t stay on for more than 45 minutes at a time. This is bad news for anyone who wants to watch television, but as the resort only gets one channel that plays the same four music videos on repeat, I’m not upset.

I do eventually discard the pile of dead bugs and take a shower to warm up. (I know this was bothering you.)

The rain is back in an astounding downpour. It beats so hard on the metal roof that it drowns out all four African music videos. (Don’t judge me, I’m going a little stir crazy in this tiny hut.)

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The hotel grounds during a rare non-rainy moment.

The power goes out again, so there’s (obviously) nothing to do but sit on the restaurant’s covered patio with a lukewarm Primus beer and watch the rain. An American couple comes running in out of the rain, saunters up to the bar, and starts speaking loudly and slowly in Spanish to the English-speaking African waitress. She looks at them exactly the way you would look at anyone who did this. I guess Spanish and Swahili are interchangeable if you’re an idiot. On behalf of Americans everywhere- I’m so sorry.

Also, the chicken curry? Definitely NOT chicken.

Hey, did you know there is an hour time difference between Uganda and Rwanda? Somehow I miss or forget this until about an hour into my frantic meltdown the following morning when (I think) my driver is an hour late picking me up for the airport. I am convinced I will miss my flight and be stranded in Rwanda until I die. *cough* Sorry about that.

45 minutes until boarding and there is a commotion at the security checkpoint. A rather large African lady is having her bag searched and is, from the sound of things, fairly unhappy about it. The officer running the X-ray machine took a big can of olive oil hair spray out of her bag and is questioning her about it. Three more officers arrive to consult. The lady has crossed her arms and is tapping one foot rapidly. Someone produces a notebook and asks her to fill something out. Ah, the ubiquitous African notebook.

Olive Oil Hairspray Lady is not giving up without a fight. She texts someone and goes back to the officers to ask if she can have it back and take it somewhere. They give it to her and she leaves, abandoning her luggage next to the security checkpoint. No one seems to care. She comes back because she forgets her passport and boarding pass.

Ten minutes later she returns without the hairspray. Now they have to bring the notebook back and scribble out whatever she’d written. The next three passengers through the screening checkpoint are allowed to keep their water bottles. Water must not be as dangerous as olive oil hairspray.

Twenty minutes after my scheduled departure time there is still no airplane outside. There are no signs or screens or anything to advise about delays, so I ask one of the security officers for an update. “Just wait,” he says. The African passengers occasionally glance at their watches and sigh.

Thirty minutes later, our plane, a DHC-8 that doesn’t look much bigger than the model airplanes I used to build as a child, has arrived and we board. My seat, 10A, doesn’t exist. There are only 9 rows of seats on the plane. Someone else has seat 12D, but there is no row 12 and no seat D. Apparently Rwandair seat assignments just come out of a bingo draw-tank. The flight attendants seem incredulous that we’re asking where to sit. There’s a lot of hand waving. “Just sit anywhere.”  This feels like an accurate representation of my short time in Rwanda.

I had to choose between a 40 minute layover or a 6 hour layover in Entebbe. This is Africa and nothing is on time, so I choose the 6 hour. The earlier flight is gone by the time my model airplane lands, so I congratulate myself on my excellent choice. And promptly throw up. It wasn’t the smoothest flight, sorry.

I order a Coke and a burger at the only restaurant open in the airport. Don’t do this. It’s the worst burger of my life. I think there are rocks in it.

So there you have it. In summary, I did pretty much every single thing wrong when visiting Rwanda, and I don’t feel I did the country justice at all. I barely left my hotel, I disliked the food, I was mistrustful of the people, and illness prevented me from taking part in any of the adventures I had planned.  I look forward to returning to Rwanda one day and having a much better trip, now that I’ve already done all the things you shouldn’t do.

Rwanda

Burma in Photos

“What does Burma have to give the United States? We can give you the opportunity to engage with people who are ready and willing to change a society.”  – Aung San Suu Kyi

Many of the people who stumble on this blog may never have thought about traveling to Burma, or even know exactly where it is without glancing at a map of Asia. That’s OK, it’s a big world. Here’s a gallery of some of my favorite Burma photos that just might make you want to visit.

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Ruled by the moon and the spirit of the tiger

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Beautiful, isn’t it? But don’t say I didn’t warn you- if you visit, you’ll fall in love.

 

 

Bucket List #152, or… I am the Worst Gorilla Tracker Ever

When you need power in the middle of the jungle, you get creative.
When you need power in the middle of the jungle, you get creative.

So apparently I’m the world’s worst gorilla tracker. But I’m also pretty lucky, so I guess it all evens out. As I’m preparing to leave for my long-awaited gorilla trek this morning, I’m proud of myself for remembering to ask the kitchen staff for a packed lunch to take with me. But I forget another, slightly important, provision- um, water?

Note to potential future gorilla trackers everywhere: don’t assume your hotel staff is going to automatically provide everything you need. Seriously, who lets me go wandering around the planet without adult supervision?

There are only four other people in my group, apart from our guide, a young woman named Cathy, and the nice man with the AK-47 who doesn’t tell us his name and who is there, he tells us, in case we encounter poachers or if someone tries to endanger a gorilla in any way. He is not there, he adds, to stop any gorilla from endangering us, especially if we’re doing something to deserve it. Everyone laughs. He doesn’t.

Cathy warns us that some groups end up having to trek up to 8 hours through really dense, unforgiving jungle before finding gorillas. On rare occasions, they search all day and don’t see any. Gorillas are constantly on the move and never sleep in the same spot twice, so an advance team of searchers sets out every morning and radios back to the guides when they’re on the trail of a gorilla family. As usual, I am ridiculously lucky. We’ve barely started walking into the jungle when our guide’s radio crackles with the news that they’ve been spotted. We reach them in less than 30 minutes.

When we get close to the gorillas, we are told to take our cameras and leave everything else with the porters who have come along to hold our bags and, if necessary, push and pull out of shape visitors up and down steep jungle inclines. We take a short walk down an overgrown ravine and are standing in the middle of a gorilla family. The silverback of the family is asleep under a tree while the babies of the group play over his head.

Baby gorilla in the trees
Baby gorilla in the trees
I swear, they're in there.
I swear, they’re in there.
Babies!
Babies!

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After taking these few mostly obscured shots through the brush…my camera battery dies. I have spares- back up at the top of the ravine, in the bag my porter is holding. God, I’m an idiot.

Cathy is immensely sympathetic, and says it’s OK if I want to walk back and get a new battery. It would be a 40 minute round trip, and visitors are only allowed a maximum of one hour to view the gorillas. Not a chance, I tell her.

The gorillas take great advantage of my camera-less state and move right out into the open. They plop themselves in the middle of a tea plantation and contentedly sit there, posing for the group, for the rest of the hour. I would have been able to take amazing pictures, even with my basic little point-and-shoot.

But I can’t, so I just try to memorize every minute. Visitors have to stay back 30 feet from the gorillas, as our guide regularly reminds us. But no one tells the gorillas, so the curious babies continue to try to dart away from their mothers and check us out before being yanked back to safety. I step to the back of the group so I am not in the way of any of the other people, who are not idiots and who have brought ample photographic supplies. This turns out to be a very fortuitous decision on my part.

After a few minutes, I hear some rustling in the brush behind me. I don’t think anything of it until I hear the grunt and the acrid smell of male gorilla hits me at the same time. I turn in slow motion and find myself standing face to face with a blackback male big enough to look down into my eyes. He’s about two feet away from me, which is basically no space at all when you take into account that ohmygodthisisawildmountaingorilla.  Apparently this guy just woke up from his mid-morning nap to realize the rest of the family had moved on out of the forest without him, and he needed to catch up.

From somewhere really far away I hear the guide softly telling me not to move, not to panic, everything is going to be OK, don’t stare into his eyes and he won’t be bothered…

This isn't my gorilla, but he could have been. Look at those eyes. (Public domain photo)
This isn’t my gorilla, but he could have been. Look at those eyes. (Public domain photo)

Gorillas constantly make a low, guttural grunting sound in their throats. This isn’t necessarily threatening, but tell that to a 100 pound woman within mauling distance. We’ve already established that I’m an idiot, though, so I didn’t have the sense to be frightened. My gorilla (because he will forever be *my* gorilla) slowly tilted his head to one side and stared into my face. Of course you’re not supposed to look them in the eye lest they feel you’re challenging them, but again- idiot. Of course I looked him in the eye just the way he was looking at me. It didn’t last longer than a minute, but the impact has stayed with me forever. We had a brief creature-to-creature bonding moment and I will never forget it.

This is why they call it gorillas in the mist...
This is why they call it gorillas in the mist…

 

Things I Love

A completely random collection of things I love, in no particular order.

 

Tiny details

Flowers left as an offering to a Ganesh statue in Bali
Flowers left as an offering to a Ganesh statue in Bali

Slow travel

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Luxuriating in an exquisite meal

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Smelling flowers

Exotic flora in Uganda
Exotic flora in Uganda

Listening to a stranger’s stories

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Watching a new city wake up

A chilly November morning in Edinburgh
A chilly November morning in Edinburgh

Bonding with animals

Edgar the affectionate manatee
Edgar the affectionate manatee

Old cemeteries

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Leaving my fingerprints on every corner of the world

Chinatown, Singapore
Chinatown, Singapore

 

What do you love? Tell me in the comments!