4 feet 2 mouths

walking and eating our way around the world

Archive for the tag “Photography”

Falling for Fall in the Hudson Valley (by Carmen)

Fall foliage in the Hudson Valley

Fall foliage in the Hudson Valley

Towards the end of October Nathan and I celebrated a big anniversary so I wanted to surprise him with something different than our usual nice dinner out. Instead, I developed a secret day trip to the Hudson Valley. To make it extra special, I organized our adventure around three common interests: culture, food and nature.

Path to the Chuang Yen Monastery temple

Path to the Chuang Yen Monastery temple

Buddha in the Hudson

Buddha in the Hudson

Nathan had his suspicions and was able to guess some of the day’s activities, but I really threw him off when I pulled into the Chuang Yen Monastery grounds. This was a serendipitous online discovery. The Hudson is known for artist colonies and high end antiquing more than Chinese monasteries so when I saw the name displayed on Google map I had to learn more. Not only does it have the largest Buddha statue in the Western hemisphere, it also serves a vegetarian lunch to visitors on the weekends. I knew I made the right decision as we walked into the dining hall. Plates were piled high with stir fried vegetables, stewed seitan, braised tofu, rice and chili sauce. It was as delicious as I’d hoped. The two women next to us were discussing Buddhist philosophy as well as a recent group of monastery visitors from Tibet. Based on our experience in Dali in 2012, we made sure to finish every single speck of food on our plate, down to the last grain of rice.

Lake with goddess statue

Lake with goddess statue

Japanese maple tree

Japanese maple tree

After lunch we walked around the grounds, which included a small lake and a mausoleum. The lunch, peaceful surrounds and chill in the air brought back so many memories of our time in China. Especially our trek between the monasteries of Mount Emei Shan.

Fishkill Farms barn, orchards and vegetables

Fishkill Farms barn, orchards and vegetables

Trees laden with apples made for easy picking

Trees laden with apples made for easy picking

Apples!

Apples!

We left the monastery and headed north to Fishkill Farms. What Nathan did guess right about the surprise day trip was the “food” portion of the day: apple picking! Some apple farms that let you pick your own fruit (known as PYO) are like amusement parks focused more on hayrides and corn mazes than produce. I wanted to avoid that scene and, while there were plenty of people at Fishkill Farms, there were quiet corners in the orchards and vegetable patches. The tree limbs were heavy with crisp, ripe Golden Delicious apples, the kale was in full bloom, and we walked out with our arms full of goodies.

Nathan practicing his expert juggling skill

Nathan practicing his expert juggling skill

Apple cider donuts

Apple cider donuts

Most people at the farm seemed to congregate around the apple cider donut stand. Nathan and I had heard people talk of these sweets but we weren’t sure if they were really worth the hype. As we stepped up to the counter, we could smell the fresh from the fryer donuts. Still piping hot, they were coated in cinnamon sugar that became slightly caramelized and crackly. We took our first bite and it was a revelation. Yes, apple cider donuts really are that good. Looking forward to many more of these in my life.

“Jade Rock of Hope and Prosperity”

“Jade Rock of Hope and Prosperity”

One last surprise, was to take a little walk on the Appalachian Trail to honor both our love of nature and of long-distance trekking. We pulled into Fahnestock Park and immediately saw a beautiful green rock jutting out from Canopus Lake. I think we were influenced by our monastery visit earlier in the day but again we were reminded of views from China. We therefore decided to name it the Jade Rock of Hope and Prosperity.

Now that I’ve seen the Hudson Valley in the fall and winter, I’m thinking spring and summer trips are in order!

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Does Yuanyang Actually Exist? (By Nathan)

Rice terrace reflections

Rice terrace reflections

The first time I saw photos like this, I was convinced they were fake. No way could an entire mountain be transformed into stepped platforms and then subsequently flooded. It did not physically seem possible, in no way was it real. Well, having been to the Yanyang rice terraces I can say that they are real and more magnificent than any photo can justify. The magic of the terraces is that their shapes are very organic matching the flow and contours of the mountains, but the squareness of the stepped walls and the immense retention of water is a reminder that humans are actively contributing to this landscape.

Woman farmer walking the terrace edge

Woman farmer walking the terrace edge

Cascading topography of Duoyishu

Cascading topography of Duoyishu

The vividness of the terraces was obscured by the fact that we arrived at night. For some frustrating reason the busses from Kunming are sleeper busses that travel during the day and arrive late at night. We loaded into a tiny minivan and bounced along the road for over forty-five minutes to arrive at the little town of Guanyinshan in the heart of the Duoyishu terraces. After pounding on the door for a few minutes, we finally got the hostel to open up and let us in. We woke to a cloud-filled valley that provided further mystique to the land formations. As the sun rose higher into the sky the mist dissipated revealing the splendor of Yuanyang rice terraces.

Duoyishu rice terraces

Duoyishu rice terraces

Close-up of Duoyishu rice terraces

Close-up of Duoyishu rice terraces

I am still grasping it, but the entire mountain has been excavated into millions of tiny rice fields. The steepness of the hillsides has been transformed into topographic layers. Each step of 4-6 feet curves and flows with what was the original natural mountain. The uniqueness of Yuanyang, compared with other terraces, is that the terraces are constantly filled with water. The people have engineered thousands of canals to flow in and around all of the terraces to create these beautiful reflection pools. Every piece of land has been manipulated and optimized to produce rice.

Hiking with new friends through Duoyishu terraces

Hiking with new friends through Duoyishu terraces

Colorful terraces

Colorful terraces

We went over to Jacky’s Guesthouse for breakfast and a view from their rooftop. This is one of the best views in Duoyishu and Jacky is an imperative resource for visiting the terraces. Most of the tourists have to pay a fee to visit these platforms throughout the region. We felt that this was overpriced and the money did not get to the locals. Jacky helped us determine some hiking routes around terraces and rustic villages to explore. We also had the good fortune of meeting some like-minded friends who were eager to roam around the mountainside.

Hani women building a new home

Hani women building a new home

Men smoking a tobacco water pipe in Shang Village.

Men smoking a tobacco water pipe in Shang Village.

The women in these areas work extremely hard. We saw them carrying bundles of harvested vegetables, wood, rocks, and wet concrete everywhere we went. The women were constantly working these manual labor jobs. During our walk through one village the women were working together to pour a concrete floor on a new home. We saw few men working these jobs, maybe they were out earning money somewhere else. The men we did find were thoroughly enjoying some tobacco from a water pipe.

Traditional Chinese mountain village

Traditional Chinese mountain village

We traversed down rocky paths into roadless villages. The water-filled terraces wrapped all around us and we continued our walk on whatever trail we could find. We scrambled up jungle cliffs, trudged in muddy creeks and balanced on the clay retaining walls. Our exploration gave little feeling of actually conquering or completing anything, but constantly reminded us how small we were in this enormous farmed mountain. Everything was terraces, and every terrace was irrigated with water. Tiny untouched villages scattered the hillsides, but everywhere was a terrace indistinguishable from one another.

Admiring the view of the Lao Huzui terraces

Admiring the view of the Lao Huzui terraces

Water-filled dreamscape

Water-filled dreamscape

Walking in the depths of the terraces is a humbling activity. It is also an easy way to get lost. We found ourselves two towns over and down the valley. We arrived back at Jacky’s, but the sun was quickly going down and sunset was fast approaching. We hired a minivan for the group of us to go and see another famous set of terraces- Lao Huzui

Sunset on the rice terraces Lao Huzui

Sunset on the rice terraces Lao Huzui

Sunset reflection pools

Sunset reflection pools

Another forty-five minutes away on another valley are the Lao Huzui terraces. The viewing spots are high on the cliff 500m above the rice fields. The valley faces the west making it perfect to watch the sun disappear on the horizon. The pools reflect the orange and pink light forming what appears to be an enormous lake that is like a fabric wraps around the mountains. The six of us had a good time sharing experiences of travel and China but most of all we sat awestruck with the beautiful view.

Terrace hopping in the dawn light

Terrace hopping in the dawn light

Sunrise Duoyishu

Sunrise Duoyishu

The next morning we were able to get a nice sunrise at Duoyishu. I hopped around from terrace to terrace. I balanced on the clay walls and traversed the steep hillside. The sun slowly peeked over the mountains and the terrace pools reflected the blue sky.

Trash-filled creek

Trash-filled creek

Despite the magnificent beauty of this landscape it was difficult to not be frustrated with how the environment is treated. I still do not understand how trash and crap can be thrown into the same water source that feeds the people of this area. The Chinese can build some of the grandest most beautiful things, but forget to recognize the public health flaws right in front of them.

Reflection pools and tree

Reflection pools and tree

I really liked this one tree that appeared to have survived all the human alterations to the land and found a way to cling onto the hillside.

Bada rice terraces

Bada rice terraces

I wanted to do some more hiking, Carmen had some computer work to do. I joined in with our new friends Michael and Albert for a walk to explore more terraces. We came across the Bada scenic viewing area. It was part of the tourist ticket that neither of us had. After being turned down by the women at the entrance we continued our walk down the road. It was amusing to us to find a dirt trail that wrapped around the ticket booth, we crouched down and creeped in…woo hoo free entry.

Home-cooked meal in Quanfuzhuang village

Home-cooked meal in Quanfuzhuang village

Home-cooked meal in Quanfuzhuang village

Home-cooked meal in Quanfuzhuang village

The presence of these friends was immensely useful when looking for food. They both have been studying mandarin abroad and we asked a local man where we could eat something. In a matter of seconds this random man escorted us into his living room and sat us down at a miniature table while he got to work in the kitchen. He cooked us roasted duck, stewed fish, pork and rice cake then joined us at the table with a jug of moonshine rice liquor. We feasted, they had a small conversation and I drank when i was told to. It was a wonderful meal and our sincere host made us feel very welcome. It was difficult to leave, but we grabbed a quick photo when we said goodbye.

Whispy blue sky

Whispy blue sky

Then we had to say goodbye to Yuanyang. We bought another bus ticket tried to find comfort on the cramped bed. The gorgeous beauty of the mountain terraces became another memory, another fantastic experience of our travels and one of those unbelievable photos that I can say “that is real, I was there.”

An Adventure In Siem Reap & Angkor (by Nathan)

Sunrise Angkor Wat

Sunrise Angkor Wat

Does it get more beautiful than that? A visit to Angkor Wat requires a journey, a good story to tell and some real adventure. We tried our best and this is what happened:

Here I am in my upper berth bed on the way to Bangkok

Here I am in my upper berth bed on the way to Bangkok

Crossing borders into developing countries is always an adventure.   We had expected something along the lines of the Bolivian guns and egos that we experienced in April, but crossing into Cambodia was surprisingly smooth and safe.  Go us!  The challenge was that we decided to take transit from the middle of Thailand to the middle of Cambodia.  And thirty hours later with six modes of transit, the trip was a success.  Starting on Koh Tao Island we hopped in the back of a truck to taxi to the port, then a ferry boat to the mainland, then we took a regional bus to Chumphon and, crap, a three hour delay of our overnight train.  Eventually we climbed onto our tiny upper bunks and we slept until morning when we arrived in Bangkok.  We grabbed a local city bus to the edge of town, then a regional bus to the Cambodian border.  With luck we could walk to the border, acquire visas and cross where we bargained for six of us (we met 3 new friends) to pile into a 90’s Honda accord. Another two and a half hours and we arrived in Siem Reap with spending only $46 each for 650 miles (1040km) of travel.

Bantaray Srei

Bantaray Srei

Carving at Bantaray Srei

Carving at Bantaray Srei

Bantaray Srei reflection pool

Bantaray Srei reflection pool

Siem Reap is the adjacent city to one of the most renown collection of temples and relics of an ancient empire.  The historic city of Angkor was huge in the 1100’s with over one million people.  Today all that remains are the temples and palaces that were built from stone.  The most known building, Angkor Wat, is just one of twenty ornately carved and grandly built structures.  On our first day we decided to ease into Angkor so we visited a temple further out called Banteay Srei.  We walked in and out of doorways and around domed temples admiring the detailed carvings.  Many of the figures address Hindu gods and stories as well as Buddhist elements because the king that built much of Angkor liked aspects of both religions.

Scootering family

Scootering family

Rice noodles, curries and coconut

Rice noodles, curries and coconut

Our mode of transit was a tuk tuk because some of the temples are 20 miles from Siem Reap.  We hired a friendly man that carted us around for the day. Families would pass us on their scooters and the standing toddlers would wave to us shouting “hallo!”. For lunch we had to repeatedly tell “Smee,” our drivers name, to not take us to one of the tour bus restaurants.  He undoubtedly wanted a commission, but we insisted on a little village center that had a few stands.  We found a place that piled a heap of rice noodles onto a plate and scooped intense curry over the top of it.  A basket filled with local greens sat on the table for us to add as we wished.  We washed it down with a fresh coconut and we were off to see more temples.

Banteay Samré

Banteay Samré

Banteay Samré doorway

Banteay Samré doorway

Banteay Samré was another beautiful temple.  This one sits a little off the beaten tourist track, but we enjoyed exploring the nearly vacant complex imagining thousands of people living around and using this building daily.

Ta Som temple

Ta Som temple

Neak Pean walkway

Neak Pean walkway

Mid-way along our tuk tuk ride we decided that we should organize the places to visit a little better.  We have to admit that we like to be better planned when we travel, but constant movement has made it difficult to know what we want to even do each day.  Most of the Angkor sights are divided among a big circuit and a small circuit.  We talked it over with Smee and then we were chugging along the road to more ancient ruins along the big circuit.  Ta Som had a beautiful tree that took over a wall and Neak Pean was difficult to see because it was fenced off.  The walk to Neak Pean was really special; wood planks along an elaborate man-made moat and a traditional band playing music made visiting the sacred pool feel pleasantly tranquil.

Carmen and the march of rainbow umbrellas

Carmen and the march of rainbow umbrellas

It is possible to feel both overcrowded and alone in these temples. Travelers riding bicycles and tuk tuks intermix with the busses of tour groups.  We were amused, and originally frustrated, but eventually delighted when a group of Chinese women took over our photo with their umbrellas.  In the end I liked the photo with the variety of color more than the one without the bus group.

Preah Khan

Preah Khan

Preah Khan carved wall

Preah Khan carved wall

Preah Khan is one of the most beautiful and elaborate of the temples.  Many of the walls and domes have collapsed, but it is possible to meander and weave around the rubble to find beautiful splashes of red and green on the black stone.  A security guard even showed us a place where we could climb to the top of the wall to admire the buildings.

Angkor Wat from Phnom Bakheng

Angkor Wat from Phnom Bakheng

Angkor Wat from west

Angkor Wat from west

The main attraction is Angkor Wat, and let’s face it, few know more about Cambodia other than Angkor Wat.  We were still building up the suspense, so we climbed up the small mountain to reach Phnom Bakheng and view the setting sun on Angkor Wat.  At the top we then waited an hour to be able to climb to the top of temple.  There were several hundred people already there, but not looking at Angkor Wat, they were freaking out at the rather plain and hazy sunset.  I love sunsets, but this one was meh, and did not deserve the intense shoulder bumping and screams of delight when it hit the horizon.  A little disappointed, we returned to Siem Reap to ready ourselves for another temple day.

Wall frieze at Angkor Wat

Wall frieze at Angkor Wat

The temple is dedicated to Vishnu

The temple is dedicated to Vishnu

Carved window pillars

Carved window pillars

Exploring Angkor Wat takes several hours.  The approach is a wide bridge that crosses a moat that is a big as a small lake.  Through the main gate we have our first view of the temple from the ground.  Huge fields flank the walkway with two smaller temples at about midway.  Beyond the temples the elevated walkway sits above two large ponds that are used for the notorious reflection shots of Angkor Wat.  We then entered the main gate and were memorized by the elaborate carvings.  It appears that the temple was etched throughout.  Room after room were carved stories of Brama, or the monkey king, or battles long since forgotten.

Angkor Wat East

Angkor Wat East

Angkor Wat South

Angkor Wat South

The Wat sits in its own shadow for most of the day, so we walked around the back and the side to get a better look enormous building  There is a mountainous hierarchy of domes that symmetrically towers overhead.  This a truly magnificent 800 year old building.

Angkor Thom South Gate

Angkor Thom South Gate

The faces of Bayon

The faces of Bayon

We had rented some ancient bikes that appeared to have been operational for the last fifty years. But they worked great and we explored big portions of the Angkor small circuit.  Angkor Thom is a huge walled complex that housed the palace buildings of the former king.  At each entrance there is a huge gate with the carved face of King Jayavarman VII, look closely and you can see Carmen on a bike.  One of our favorite temples was Bayon.  This elaborate building contains 216 carved faces.  The beautiful carved contours of each has stood the weathering of time, but like real humans each has aged uniquely.

The elephant terraces

The elephant terraces

The Leper King Terrace carved wall

The Leper King Terrace carved wall

A huge field in Angkor Thom has elaborately carved elephants into the retaining walls.  This elephant terrace allowed for the king and companions to board their elephants when traveling throughout the region.  The terrace of the Leper King also has an elaborate retaining wall with detailed carvings that meander around the hillside.

Carmen Croft, Tomb Raider

Carmen Croft, Tomb Raider

Thom Prohm dome

Thom Prohm dome

Thom Prohm tree take over

Thom Prohm tree take over

Thom Prohm is most known for being highlighted on Tombraider.  Carmen showed us her guns.  The abundance of trees that have taken over and destroyed Thom Prohm is amazing.  Huge 80ft trees tower above while wrapping themselves around a wall or small dome.  Streams of people and tour groups admire the beauty these ancient buildings being intertwined with a forest of trees.

Crazy sunrise photographers

Crazy sunrise photographers

The sun rises over Angkor Wat

The sun rises over Angkor Wat

I did not realize the hoards of people that were possible at a sight until I went to see Angkor Wat at sunrise.  We have seen crazy tourists wielding cameras at the Cristo,   Iguazú, and Taj Mahal, but this was all out war of photography. On the third day I woke in the dark and I left Carmen sleeping to begin my bicycle ride to the temple.  The 12km seemed endless as a pumped the peddles to get there before sunrise.  When I arrived, the scene was horrendous- thousands of people all trying to get the perfect shot.  I believe in “camera karma,” but I had finding trouble peaking over the ten person deep crowd.  Eventually after wading into the slimy muck I waited patiently.  I watched a Chinese man take his 200th photo and I asked if I could squeeze it.  The look I received from him and his wife was as if I was asking to go in on a threesome, cameras left aside, unfortunately they did not budge.  The colors faded from reds to pinks and surprisingly all the tour groups deserted the banks. Apparently tour groups have a schedule because I remained, now with elbow room to admire the oranges and yellows and the sun cresting over the top of the temple.  For a micro-moment I felt alone and peace with this beautiful sight. Angkor Wat is stunningly magnificent.

Sunset Angkor Wat moat

Sunset Angkor Wat moat

Pond lily

Pond lily

Some of the most beautiful and wonderful aspects of Siem Reap were not even the temples.  A sunset on a reflection pool or the lily flowers blooming in the pond at Ankor Wat were as amazing as all the beautiful temples.  I biked back to the hotel after the sunrise, but I decided to stop at a small market for breakfast.  I pointed my way to get a bowl of rice porridge and a glass of iced coffee.  We packed our bags and scheduled a regional bus.  Siem Reap was short and eventful, but something was missing from the experience- good Cambodian food.  Battambang here we come, and we’re hungry.

The Unbelievable Cappadocia (by Nathan)

Sunrise hot air balloons in Cappadocia

Want to see a place that is magical, astonishing and entirely unbelievable? Visit Cappadocia in central Turkey for one out-of-this-world experience.  Spectacular land formations converge with exemplary culture for an experience of a lifetime.

Colorful Turkish carpets

Göreme rock tower and former home

Sizzling clay pot chicken

We landed in the city of Göreme from Selçuk on one super long bus ride that passed through Ankara.  It is difficult to know all major holidays while traveling, but our time in Turkey coincided with one of the largest Muslim holidays of the year, Eid al-Adha.  Thus busses were booked and we added an extra four hours of travel time just to get to Cappadocia.  When we finally did arrive, we staggered out of the mini bus completely in awe.  Enormous cones of rock scattered the landscape. Each miniature mountain had been hollowed out with windows, rooms, and elaborate entrances.  Everywhere we looked was a cave home or cave hotel towering over the city.  We explored the city for a short while, but our afternoon ended quickly as the clouds closed in overhead and our daylight disappeared.  For dinner found a cozy restaurant with some pide (Turkish style pizza) and clay pot roast.

Sunrise balloon silhouettes

Checkered hot air balloon drifting through Cappadocia

We awoke in the dark.  Despite our desire to sleep in, we were eager to climb to the Göreme lookout point.  We ascended to the ridge to discover eighty hot air balloons preparing for take off.  There was a silence in the air that was broken by scattered rough coughs of enormous torches heating the gigantic balloons.  In the faint light the balloons slowly rose from the canyon.  They drifted into the air and above the horizon.  The colors and designs of each balloon varied- there were stripes, checkerboards, rings, flags and advertisements decorating the orange sky.  The sun peaked over the mountain ridge in the distance and the balloons rose higher and higher.  After an hour of flight the balloons steer themselves to an opposite canyon and land effortlessly on trailers waiting for them.  The balloon travelers viewed the drastic landscape from the sky, but we wanted to explore the canyons on foot.

Shadowed eroded contours

Our hiking companion Spotty

Colorful contours of the Red Valley

We began our hike at the top of the Red Valley, looped into the Rose Valley and returned to Göreme.  In our first hour of hiking we immediately found a new friend, Spotty, a friendly stray dog that loved to walk and show us around the canyon.  There were some sections where we needed to climb a ladder into narrow tunnels.  Spotty would pout, we would say goodbye, then five minutes later he would return to us jumping up and down excited that he found another way to the trail.  He reminded me of the sweet dogs that hiked with us in South America.

Frescoes of a Red Valley church

Carved cave cathedral in the Red Valley

The cliffs in these valleys are amazing.  Huge ridge lines of rock overshadowed our trail.  Looking into the rock face we would see a carved window.  We approached one former habitation to find a beautiful church, full of colorful plastered and painted frescos.  We were mesmerized by another church down the trail; an enormous cathedral, a man-made cavern carved out of the rock.  Columns and beams were cut from the original rock as one continuous formation.  The church was beautiful, welcoming and peaceful.  After a few pictures, we continued our walk through the canyon.  The colors of rock were fantastic with subtle pinks and oranges contrasted with bright whites and drastic wave-like erosion grooves.

Beautiful Cappadocia landscape

Fairy chimneys of Love Valley

Delightful Turkish trail mix

The next day we explored the valleys to the west, the White Valley and Love Valley. We descended from Uçhisar and into the deep canyon.  Within a half hour our perspective was cutoff and hiked deeper into the canyon.  Two hours into our walk and we realized that, although beautiful, we had been hiking the wrong canyon and we were lost.  We refueled with some Turkish delights. We crossed a few ridges and found our way to the Love Valley.  Sixty foot fairy chimneys stood as prominent, and slightly phallic columns in the valley. We continued our hike to the adjacent city of Çavuşin, picked up a local bus and returned to Göreme exhausted.

Lamb döner sandwich

Chicken döner plate

With all this hiking our lunch times have been sporadic and our hunger voracious.  It seems to be a common occurrence for us to push hard to see sights all day and when we finally stop for a break we are eating lunch at 4 o’clock.  The go-to place for a quick and delicious bite are the many döner kebab stands throughout every Turkish city. Chicken or lamb is layered onto a spike and rotated slowly over a flame until the meat becomes juicy and delicious.

Backside of Uçhisar castle

Amazing 800 year old cave home

The cave buildings are everywhere.  One enormous one is Uçhisar castle.  This gigantic rock has been carved with at least ten stories of rooms and chapels.  The look-out point can be accessed around the side of the castle and offers excellent views of the nearby cities and valleys.

Göreme open air museum

The dark church frescoes

The best preserved churches in the area are in the Göreme open air museum.  This collection of eight or so fairy chimneys and cliffs house beautiful chapels decorated exquisitely with colorful frescoes.  One frustrating part of Turkey has been the constant demand for entrance fees from tourists.  I am happy to be a tourist, but frustrated when I am considered a cash-cow.  The last time I felt like this was in Cuzco.  Of course we payed extra to get into the dark church.  Hiding behind one of the columns, I befuddled the security guard and took this photo of the ceiling.  Breaking the law for the blog!

Kaymakli underground city

Deeper into the earth we explored.  A short bus ride from Nevşehir and we were descending a set of stairs into a underground city of Kaymakli.  Eighteen hundred years ago, christianity was just picking up momentum.  In order to protect themselves the people dug out elaborate tunnels, ventilation shafts and locking doors deep into the earth.  We climbed down a stairwell, through a dimly lit hallway and room after room showed a history of food storage, wine making and cooking.  There was even a place for livestock to be kept safe.  The entrance fee covers a lit path the descends one hundred feet (30m) down through six levels of the eleven that exist.  I counted at least six sections of the city that were not lit; I strapped my headlamp on and I climbed into the darkness.  I crawled on my hands and knees and eventually the tiny hallway opened up into a room, another hallway and I found a bigger room.  Sections of rock were carved out to hold a round door used to block the passage way.  Deep and alone and feeling like I was in an Indiana Jones movie, I turned around and returned to Carmen.

Cave buildings in Rose Valley

Cappadocia continued to take our breath away.  The natural formations of rock alone are spectacular.  Combined with colorful balloons, cavernous underground city’s and cave churches makes the region a magical and unbelievable place.  This is one of the best places we have ever been, go here!

Swimming In A Volcano In Santorini (by Ναθεν)

… and then we found ourselves on one of the most beautiful places on the PLANET.

Firostefani and ocean

Golden Fira

Santorini deserves all the hype, all the magazine cover shots, and all the glory because it truly is a spectacular place. We arrived on a commuter ferry that chugged along the Mediterranean from Naxos. The arrival to this island was different than the others, everyone on the boat was anxious and giddy in anticipation. When the boat wrapped around the crescent tip of the island, people rushed to take photos. If there is such thing as hunger for sights, then there was definite drooling and jaw dropping as the curved white buildings that frosted chocolate colored cliffs came into focus.

Oia cave and cliffside homes

Carmen and I also became bleary eyed at the sights. Unfortunately for us we were already in island mode. We slowly exited the boat, drifted over to the tourist office and chatted a bit for a map. We went back outside to board the public bus that climbs the steep switchbacks and we realize we missed it. And it was the last bus of the day. A moment of panic when understanding hits us that the closest city of Fira is too far to walk and taxis are expensive because we are the last tourists on the port. We work out a deal with a hostel owner for a one night’s stay and a free shuttle to Perissa. Not exactly our plan, in fact, it is on the opposite side of the island from where we wanted, but we load into the van and set off for a spontaneous adventure.

Sunset Santorini

As expected, Perissa wasn’t our style. The resort-like cafes and lawn chairs in the black sand were beautiful, but we came to Santorini to see the magic of a civilization that lives and dies along the volcano.

Fresco of 3500 year old building

Three story building from 1500BC

The Minoans inhabited Thira (another name for Santorini) for thousands of years. Their civilization was immensely successful with tens of thousands of inhabitants throughout the Greek islands. Unfortunately all these great islands existed because of a dark past. This section of the Mediterranean is a boundary zone of the European and Asian tectonic plates. A volcano erupted around 1,600BC that wiped out their civilization. This was not just any eruption, it is the largest eruption ever recorded and documented by humans. The sound was so enormous that Chinese records describe the sound of it twice as the wave reached them from different directions around the world. Enormous amounts of material blew into the sky, the whole island grew a thousand feet taller and tsunamis expanded the havoc around the world.

Akrotiri excavations

Evidence of ash and volcanic eruptions

Akrotiri was an ancient city on Thira. When the volcano exploded, the city was covered in thirty feet of pumice and ash. This rare circumstance allowed the what was left of the buildings, that survived the earthquakes before the eruption, to be remarkably preserved for 3,500 years. The city was discovered in the 1960’s and slowly they uncovered buildings and intertwining streets rich with painted frescoes, advanced multi-story buildings and sewer systems. This was an advanced civilization, and there are no records to their existence beyond this enormous volcanic event.

Satellite view of Santorini Volcano (Photo credit: WikiCommons)

Walking on the center of the volcano

The volcano around Santorini has shaped and reshaped the islands for millions of years. Each explosion destroyed whole mountains and continued to build up the layers of Islands that remained. We took a boat to the center of the volcano; we walked on the cooling magma center. Standing on the foreign landscape is surreal, perfectly silent and covered in jagged dark brown rocks. There are small craters on this island showing minor eruptions, but it is the whole group of islands, the caldera that is many miles wide that shows the enormity and unrelenting unimaginable power of the earth. The cliffs communicate this history with portions of black crumbly stone, or jagged red boulders or loose pock-marked ash and pumice. And like all beautiful, but dangerous places, the people eventually forgot the catastrophic event and they reinhabited the island.

Rustic door

Chapels of Santorini

Fira is the main city on the island. It is built on the cliffs in the middle of the crescent-shape and the city is packed with thousands of cute whitewashed buildings that curve and flow with the contours of the mountain. There is a beauty in the haphazard construction of all these buildings right on top of one another. Stairways twist and weave in between the buildings, paths start and stop almost randomly, and buildings occupy every little bit of space. I may even make the jump to say that the buildings on the steep slope remind me of a favela. Trash free, plastered and painted with sewers; Rio could make its densest neighborhoods into high-end real estate.

Locally brewed beer

Moussaka from Nikolas Taverna in Fira

Lamb kleftiko

Reward for hiking from sea to cliffside village

We drank locally brewed beer on a picturesque patio. There was moussaka, and kleftiko dinners paired with wine and of course ice cream rewards for those climbs up the steep path from water to city.

Firostefani in the morning light

Carmen and shadow

An essential activity for any visitor to Santorini is to walk the ridge line of the island. The end points of the walk are Oia and Fira and it is about 12km (8mi). We walked it one morning starting at Fira at sunrise with a destination of Oia for lunch. The path works its way through Fira, into the picturesque Firastefani. Outside of town the dirt and cobblestone path follows the ridge and cliff’s edge allowing for endless views around the island. Occasionally a small lonely chapel appears on the path, a remnant of a gracious sailor who braved a storm and lived to fish another day. The sun beats hot on our backs and slowly the buildings of Oia come into view.

Oia, the most beautiful city on the most beautiful island

Blue domed churches and contours of Oia

Walking into Oia, is strange and exhilarating, it is hard to believe that a town can be so gorgeous. Every building has a dome or a curved arch or rounded balcony; straight lines are the minority which creates a natural and harmonious addition to the glowing Mediterranean sea below. Churches with their bright blue domes scatter the cityscape and every surface that is not a walkway is a patio for sunbathing.

Our seafood cantina lunch spot

Tomatokeftedes and sliced feta lunch

Swimming hole below Oia

We decided to walk down the several hundred stairs to swim and grab lunch in the tiny marina. Katina served us delicious tomato fritters, a hunk of feta cheese and a grilled whole fish. We walked left from the harbor to a tiny beach overlooking a small island. The water was cool, but not cold, turquoise and crystal clear. There is a thrilling concrete platform on the side of the island that made it possible to cliff jump into this beautiful water. Swimming in a volcano has never been so much fun.

My gracious jump into the Mediterranean

Sunset Santorini x4

The challenge of any Santorini tourist is where to watch the sunset. I love sunrises and sunsets (as you have seen), but the tourists on Santorini push and shove to get the perfect view of the sun hitting the water. A sunset in Fira showers the city in golden light, in Oia it is possible to stand on the ridge of a peninsula with all periphery consumed by sun, ocean and other camera-wielding tourists. My favorite was Firastefani, a tranquil setting with a more local feel. And the sunsets on Santorini are amazing and worth it. Perched high on a cliff we could see a world vast with beautiful ocean and a scattering of islands. It is hard to imagine a more beautiful place.

Oia silhouette

Sunset from Firastefani

The Graceful Lives of Flowers in Close Up (by Nathan)

Tree flower in Rio

The vibrancy of the natural world is most evident in the colors created by the sun.  The sky is painted during sunrises and sunsets, but some of the most magnificent natural beauty is in the flowers scattered throughout the world.

Our pilgrimage across the country of Spain continues.  Here are some photos of my favorite blooming flowers found during my travels:

Macau flower and façade

In Macau a bee stopped for a suckle in front of the Ruins of St. Paul.

Kyoto tiger lily

An enormous tiger lily hung across the philosopher’s path in Kyoto.

Rio de Janiero orchid

Kuala Lumpur orchids

What is it about orchids that make them so alluring?  The bright colors, contoured petals and symmetry are so fascinating.  Visit somewhere tropical and there will be orchids in great varieties.

Vancouver tulips

In volume flowers can transition a landscape and make an area colorful and teeming with life.

Oregon honey suckles

Picnic and flowers

Purple lady slippers in Berkeley

Flowers surround our daily activities and highlight our special events.

Squash blossoms to be consumed

Some of the best flowers can be consumed.  I stuffed these farmer’s market squash blossoms with ricotta then beer-battered and fried them.  Delicious!

Pulchritudinous Plants (by Nathan)

There is so much in this world to see.  It is easy to get caught up in the excitement of travel, moving quickly from one big site to the next.  Carmen is good at slowing me down and reminding me to “stop and smell the flowers.”  It is so wonderful to examine and enjoy the intricacies and details of all that surrounds us.  From details in the Inca stonework in Machu Picchu to the grasses that sway over the hills of Sonoma, there is so much to see and investigate.  Here is a collection of many of my favorite plant photos that I have taken worldwide.  They remind me of the undeniable beauty (pulchritude) of plants.  I love the gentle curvature and perfection of color that each provides.  I am reminded of how the subtleties of nature make plants so magnificent.

We are still hiking the Camino de Santiago, so this collection will have to suffice until we get back to internet:

Berkeley succulent

Plants have the most wonderful colors, most commonly greens, but purples too.  The petals of succulents have such an amazing frequency and proportion to them.

Fallen ginko leaf in Tokyo

Carmen and I were caught in the rain in Kyoto.  The downpour stopped and the Ginko leaves brightly scattered the street and each elegantly posed for a photo.

Lichen on a fence rail in Sonoma

Moss on an oak tree

There is beauty in the plants that depend on the wood around them to grow.  The soft greens of lichen and the furry moss provide a texture to their surroundings.

Oak leaves scattering the path on Angel Island

During a hike in Angel Island, I stopped to admire the abundance of colors and textures created by the leaves of the live oak forest above.

Summer fields in the Sonoma hills

Dew on wheat

On weekends I tend to wake up early; earlier than most people consider morning.  I can’t help it, my body gets really excited for the weekend.  One camping trip I woke so early that I needed to leave the campsite because my hangover friends were not going to be happy if I started making noise.  I hiked deep into the hills behind Lake Sonoma.  The pine forest continued up the steep hillside and at the top I found a beautiful clearing of golden brown wild wheat.  The dew had condensed on them and I sat there for over an hour just watching them sway.

City dandelion in Chicago

In Chicago, we found a softball sized dandelion that took Carmen and I several breaths to fully release all the seeds into the wind.

Entanglement of Tres Sabores vines

Visiting wineries has not entirely been about drinking.  We often meander through the vineyards tasting a grape here and there and touching the intricate vines.  Then we return to a glass of wine.

Succulent zinfandel grapes

Graffiti and Street Art Gone Global (by Nathan)

Berkeley city gazer

I love good street art.  There is something wonderful about huge murals that express the vibrancy of a place and the people around it.  I would never encourage the illegible crap that seems to plague so many places as graffiti, but there is street art around the world worth admiring.  There are places with graffiti that is as eye-catching and engaging as anything in any museum.  I usually take photos of street murals that I like, seeing them reminds me of the walk through the neighborhood, the excitement of the city and the uniqueness of the culture.

We are currently walking the Camino de Santiago.  We began at Pied de Port in France and we will be walking for four weeks.  Enjoy this collection of graffiti while we are in transit:

Typical vibrant building in the Mission in San Francisco

Twisted building mural in San Francsico

Sailing ship in San Francisco

San Francisco has a wonderful collection of beautiful murals.  The Mission neighborhood includes enormous buildings and blocks of alleyways full of intricate paintings.  The murals express a medley of Mexican cultural heritage, surreal landscapes and just about anything and everything else.

Venice eyebrows

The expressive and slightly disturbing piece of art is the furry pair of eyebrows and staring eyes that have found us several times when walking around in Venice Los Angeles.

Valparaiso building

Valparaiso is a neighborhood on Chile’s coast known for its assortment of colorful assortment of murals.

Montreal graffiti racoons

Montreal had an interesting program to repaint and cover up the eyesores of graffiti with a street art competition to paint industrial buildings.

Family riding bugs in Buenos Aires

Karate fish in Montevideo

São Paulo stairway

Graffiti is political and colorful, and always creative in ways that I could never have guessed.  It can be enjoyed by everyone and easily replaced when the next artists has a better idea.  The artwork provides life to blank walls and lonely walkways.

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