Bhutan: a dream come true

Bhutan is a country famous for being one of the happiest countries in the world, but for a country to measure its kind of GDP by a happiness index, there certainly is something magical going on.

Guðny, me and Togga

Bhutan was my 220th country, depending on how you count, but one I’ve been longing to go to, and perhaps I was saving the best for last. Its population is only 750,000, a kingdom nestled in the Himalayas between China and eastern India, and 75% of Bhutanese people are Buddhist. Those kinds of statistics already create such an unknown, a magical fairytale place only Tibet could challenge, but since I’ve never been to Tibet either, I didn’t know what to expect.

one of our most rewarding hikes to the Tiger´s Nest

Getting into Bhutan isn’t hard, but it isn’t cheap either. With the daily rate per tourist set at $200-250 per day, you have do dish out a thousand dollars for a short visit. The set up was reminiscent of North Korea, not in a negative way, but in the sense that our tour guide was with us nearly 24/7, driving and guiding us the whole time without any real free time or ability to roam independently. The difference was that he was trying to show us his best hospitality, not control our thoughts or experience, and we loved Phurba.

The Tiger´s Nest Monastery, aka Paro Taktsang

We visited multiple temples, monasteries and dzongs (forts and palaces), while staying in hotels filled with Indian tourists until we got to homestay in Punakha with a local family. We had some issues taking out and exchanging money, since a country rich in happiness doesn’t take a lot of visa or debit cards. Few people had much to do with dollars or euros so buying ngultrum (which I still cant pronounce) wasn’t easy, and they were always mixed up with Inidan rupees since they’re equivalent in value.

river rafting with Phurba

The highlight of the week was river rafting down the Mochu river, under an old iron bridge and the rice fields in Punakha valley. Bonding with our guide Phurba and partying with his friends was a perfect complement to having a professional host and well-trained hiking leader, and overlapping at Tiger’s Nest with a Backroads trip was a funny contrast to the kind of travel we were all experiencing, but in oh such different ways. I look forward to going back to Bhutan and trying yet another way, perhaps a horse back ride to Tibet. Apparently the locals do it regularily!

Stopover Kathmandu

The last time I went to Kathmandu, I was on a same-day ticket I was forced to buy in Kabul, Afghanistan after I missed my flight out. Kabul is not a city you want to get stuck in, so making it to Kathmandu was the best feeling I´ve ever had landing in an anonymous city. I traveled around Nepal last time, but this visit was a transit stop to finally get to Bhutan.

Tihar festival of lights

Kathmandu is a great stopover city, although my least favourite airport in the world. For being the country´s main international entry and exit point, the most basic things don´t work. The visa on arrival system takes 3 different line ups, and includes kiosks, a cashier, pen and paper, and an immigration officer with the final stamp. It took an hour and a half to get out of there,  and even longer to leave. Our flight to Bhutan was delayed 3 hours, in a terminal that had squat toilets, no duty free, and no souvenir shops.

My travel buddies to Bhutan

The traffic is okay during holidays and we were there during the Tihar lights festival, unless you get stuck behind a marching band and their parade… then the roads slow down to walking speed. I was meeting two Icelandic friends who had just finished their yoga teacher training in Pokhara, so we split a hotel in Thamel to do some cheap shopping and dining. I have a Nepalese friend who lives in Iceland, but managed to overlap with him in Kathmandu at the same time he was in town.

luxury in Thamel

We didn´t have much say in our Bhutan planning, since we had a guide and itinerary pre-booked and fully paid before hand. Planning a night on either side of Bhutan was our only project, and deciding which trekking shoes our outdoor clothes to buy. We treated ourselves to infinity pools, massages and pedicures because we could afford to do so, and just tried to drink the jetlag off. Nepal was the perfect launching point for Bhutan, with just enough similarity in weather, people, food and culture to feel familiarized with what was to come.

Bari to Patras, Kiato to Athens

After staff ride, one hundred of us volunteered in San Barinco to pick up micro trash and improve environmental awareness in the little town. We kind of looked like zombies looking for cigarette butts, but we made a difference, and the beach looked like paradise within only a couple of hours.

some Mediterranean Sea time

I traveled to Bari with the rest of the volunteers and boarded a superfast ferry to Patras. I was relieved to have no schedule, no appertivo, and no people around me, so I could just worry about me myself and sleeping. It was a 16 hour ferry, and I must have slept 13 hours of the way. My body ached, and I had no mental energy to switch over to Greek, culturally or linguistically. I learned the alphabet and some phrases once, but now it was time to shut down, and go into recover mode.

Patras, Greece

I left Patras to Kiato, where the peaceful coastal towns continued in Greek. I traveled by bus and train, and needed to get to Athens eventually. I got off the train in Athens station (big mistake) and decided to walk to the Acropolis, you know, to stretch my legs. Within 2 km, I walked from whore house to crack town and then turned the corner into tourist city central, and Im not sure where I felt safer, but definitely couldn´t put my guard down as much as it had been in sleepy Puglia.

surrounded by ruins

I only had a day in Athens, before heading to the airport and taking my international red eye flight. Athens is a grimy town, full of misfits and tourists from everywhere, buzzing together in the second oldest city of Europe, a clash of pre-Christian history and modern city with a whole lot of made-in-china souvenir shops.

under the Acropolis

Sitting under the acropolis on a rooftop balcony drinking a Greek beer felt surreal. I´m not sure how real an ancient archeological site can ever really feel, because you know the facts and numbers, you´ve heard the stories and seen pictures and paintings, but if only those walls, or pillars rather, could speak.

Staff Ride 2019

I was hired by Backroads a year and a half ago and remember thinking, ´just get hired to go to Staff Ride!´ Well, 3 seasons of employment later, I realize Backroads was never just a job, but a lifestyle, and I´ve maybe finally figured out how to enjoy this Backroads life.

happy days with Backroads

Backroads operates in more than 60 countries, and has over 700 tour leaders, in addition to all the office staff, field assistants and other background magicians, so the corporate family isn´t small. The turnover is high, so people come and go, and the ones you know you rarely see, and you´re constantly fastforwarding friendships with strangers you work with intensely, for only a brief moment in time. You never know who you´ll see again, or when, but it doesn´t matter, since they all fill a niche part of your professional (and personal) life.

rest stop in Carovigno castle

Staff ride was pretty much the same; a group of old friends and new strangers, more than 400 of them, crossing paths, starting conversations we´ll never finish, meeting people whose names we´ll probably forget, but whose faces we know we´ll see again. You´ll recognise people and how they made you feel, even though you don´t know where they´re from, but we all share a common ground – the Backroads lifestyle – so we all relate, on some level or another.

one of the many beautiful coastal towns we biked thru

Staff ride 2019 was in Puglia, Italy, and it was more than I dreamed it would be. It was a mix of angst and excitement, with old and new friends, many more than you could count, and all the places and spaces were filled with new landscapes and rolling scenery from a bicycle. I´m not a strong cyclist, but it wasn´t (only) about the biking; it was about seeing and experiencing a place in slow motion, smelling and feeling it under your skin. The ability to stop anywhere for a photo, take it slow, sweat it out, and speed it up for the breeze you needed to cool back down. My butt hurts, not gonna lie, but every kilometer was worth it.

at the tip of the boot

We wined and dined, in historical towns and ancient castles, visited vineyards and citrus gardens, cliff jumped in the Adriatic, saw the ruins of an olive oil press and danced our hearts out in an all-white Pugliese dance festival. We skirted around the coastal towns of Bari, Monopoli and Otranto, and summited the hilltop towns of Ostuni and Carovigno. We overtook the town of Lecce for a night, and by the end of our 4 days cycling, most had covered nearly 380 km, others, over 450 km.

lunch at a Salento farmhouse

It was all a blur, a whirlwind of activity, culture, luxury and socialising. I can´t remember who I biked with where or when, but the conversations still resonate in my mind. If you imagine putting 400+ well-traveled, international, cosmopolitan, educated people together in the boot of Italy, all on the same itinerary, perhaps you can begin to understand why I thought this was always going to be the highlight of the job. The catch is that it happens every year, so the job is only going to get better, and staff ride changes location every year. It’s nice to know I get to work with Backroads in Iceland every summer and winter, with my regular visits to Provence in the spring, but the surprise of staff ride will always be the x-factor. If only my butt would agree…

Being Thankful in Canada

I´m thankful for Icelandair flying direct from Iceland to Vancouver all year round, especially since they cancelled direct flights to Kansas and I got to trade my one way ticket there for Vancouver. So, instead of a mid-west roadtrip, I got to go to British Columbia during one of the most beautiful times of year.

Vancouver

Instead of cherry blossoms and warm nights, there´s fiery red maples and crisp, cool evenings. The other trees are shades of yellow and orange, to match the pumpkins and Halloween season, while pine trees remain forest green, creating an orchestra of colours. The trees are everywhere, covering mountains, whose peaks were beginning to get dusted with early snow fall.

Beautiful British Columbia

I didn´t lose the itch for a roadtrip, so I rented a car from YVR and drove straight through all of BC. I started in Langley, where I met my 4 month old nephew for the first time, and carried on to Dawson Creek, where my older sister just nested in her new house. After breaking off highway 1 in Cache Creek, I drove the 97 past 70 Mile House, 100 Mile House, 150 Mile House and Prince George. From Dawson Creek, my sister joined and we carried on all the way to the Northwest Territories, driving nearly 500km of the spectacular Alaskan Highway.

stopping to snuggle domestic animals, since the wild game were so far away

I was thankful to visit the Northwest Territories for the first time, and we we´re so overjoyed by the first wild Bison we saw, only to realize there´s be herds of them roaming around Fort Liard, our base for the night. We hiked along Liard River and around Hay Lake, in hopes of a moose sighting, but dreading any bear encounters, since us rookies didn´t have any bear spray with us.

at Pink Mountain

We saw a bear grazing near the highway and a few more bison, along with some elk and even one coyote, but I´ll return to the Alaskan highway in hopes of a moose, or even a bigfoot or sasquatch, sighting. Pink Mountain town has a whole shrine to the sasquatch, and apparently he´s been sighted, and even caught before, in and around that area of the highway.

my sisters and my new nephew

On my way south, I stopped in Ashcroft, couchsurfed the back of a bakery, and made it back to Langley to snuggle my nephew, younger sister, and her mini doodle. Thanksgiving was coming up, and we hadn´t celebrated as a family for over 10 years, so it was time. There were pumpkins to gut and cook, pies to buy and a turkey to stuff and roast, and a dozen of my sisters friends came with other scrumptious sides. We had pumpkin ales, pumpkin spiced Bailey´s and an assortment of local Langley wines after some selective wine tasting in the area.

liquor tasting in Abbotsford

I enjoyed my days training for the 10km Turkey Trot run, held at Granville Island on Thanksgiving day. I finished my second motorcycle exam and rode a Honda 250 around Richmond and Burnaby when the weather was good, and hung out with my oldest friend.

Tandem in Stanley

I´ve known Lisa since we were only 9 or 10 years old, and she was getting married, so we cought up over lunch, went to her wedding dress fitting and then distracted her a bit from the upcoming big day by tandem cycling around Stanely Park.

Stanley Park lunch

Leaving Vancouver left me full of gratitude, for the season, the weather, the coast, the forest, and more importantly, friends and family. My grandma will be 90 next month, and she is the only grandparent I have left and the oldest person I know. She´s still got her wits about her and shares stories of growing up in Guyana that make me thankful for the places and people I grew up surrounded by.

Ending the Turkey Trot in Granville Island under the bridges on Thanksgiving day

The sunshine, the autumn leaves, the warmth of a sun in a sometimes wet and rainy place… the list goest on. I loved roadtripping to new places, and riding a motorcycle to places I had been a hundred times before, but never seen from the back of a bike. Running the 10km loop from Granville Island, over Burrard Bridge, past Science World and thru False Creek made me grateful for my health. And a bit of turkey and pumpkin pie never goes by unappreciated.

Big City hopping

Backpacking or roadtripping in Europe is something I haven´t done a lot, and started doing late in my travels, since the budget for a month in Europe can go a long way in Western Africa or Southeast Asia. Its also nice to visit Europe in the summer, which is prime work time, but early autumn or late spring is really the perfect time to visit. I got the excuse to go to Europe for 2 days of work, but extended it into a week long overland trip of big city hopping so I could try and justify my carbon emissions from Iceland and back.

Vor Frelsers Kirke

I started in Copenhagen, where I wanted to visit a dear horse-backriding friend Ditte, but that very same weekend she went to Iceland to ride so I borrowed her summer cabin for me and my favourite German riding friend. Michael had a bad knee so we didnt ride the Icelandic horses nearby in the town of Nykobing but we enjoyed the beaches of Sjaelland by bicycle and the weather was even good enough to barbeque dinner.

Copenhagen canals

We stopped in Copenhagen for a night to overlap with Ditte for one city bike ride and some touristic stops, and the next morning I flew to Hamburg, where I´d be meeting yet another horse friend Jana, for her birthday! We celebrated by scooting around town, day drinking and taking public transport ferries with roadbeers for a cheap booze cruise. We dined with some friends and sniffed some stuff that gave me a head rush, and the next morning we were finally off to ride. We rode Icelandic horses at a friends breeding farm called Bockholts-Hoff and rode thru a German forest on horses that had just arrived from Iceland. I wore my new yoga/riding/hiking pants that were a little too tropical for the rainy weather, but they must have been the reason the sun finally came out.

riding Icelandic horses in Germany

Next I was off to Rotterdam, via flight to Amsterdam and dinner with a Dutch horse friend, who rode those very Icelandic horses with Silke and I a few weeks earlier in Iceland. A short and sweet date before I checked into my Backroads hotel and was given a Backroads van to drive to Provence early the next morning.

Dijon

My ´work´ roadtrip took me 1,099km thru Holland, Antwerp and Belgium, then Luxembourg and into France. I drive past Moselle, Metz, Nancy, a bit of Champagne region, Dijon and spent a night in Beaune. Then I drove the Bourgogne trail, past the gastronomic capital of Lyon, along the Rhone and into Provence. We ended in Carpentras, where we keep our vans, and I spent a day bike touring thru Aubignan and Sarrians.

good thing our bikes have built in wine racks

Another day was spent traveling by train back to Paris, eating some moules frites on the streets of Montmarte, and left feeling like I had taken in an overwhelming amount of sights, tastes and culture from so many different corners of Europe. I had also managed to get a tan and feel the sun, so returning to a chilly fall in Iceland was very welcomed, especially since it was one of the first times Iceland was really experiencing a truly autumn season.

Hot air balloons in Cappadocia

One of those life bucket list items, floating above Cappadocia in a hot air balloon at sunrise was an absolute dream come true. Doing it at the end of May was perfect timing, with excellent weather, and tourism on the upswing, but still enough space to squeeze one extra person into the basket.

lucky me!

The trip started in Istanbul, flying into the world’s largest, brand new IST airport. It took longer to walk from the gate to the taxi stand than it took to drive the brand new highway to old city Sultanahamet, nearly 50km away.

heating up the hot air balloon before take off

The markets and bazaars were buzzing, and the Bosporus river traffic non-stop, so flying away to central Anatolia was a breath of fresh air. We flew into Kayseri, but out of Nevsehir, and both were closer to Cappadocia and less populated than any neighbourhood of Istanbul.

Goreme

The quaint town of Goreme near Cappadocia was visitable by foot, offering incredible walks among the minaret-like rock formations. The pillars looked like fairy chimneys, and carved valleys and caves were found around every corner, sometimes even incorporated into the hotel or restaurant building. There was the obligatory Turkish hamam to visit, a post office, a handful of great restaurants, and the most incredible sunsets and sunrises to see – especially floating above the town, silently, hundreds of meters in the sky.

sunrise from the air

The dozen or so hot air balloon companies all said they were fully booked until July, but walking around Cappadocia town the first night resulted in a couple of options. Some last minute cancellations would have cost me 179 euros, but the ‘black market’ option, which meant the trip was being resold to me without refunding the original passenger, were upwards of 250 euros. I didn’t figure out how that made sense, but I was excited to get Robin Callaway’s certificate during our ‘champagne’ toast after the flight, which was actually sparkling, non-alcoholic grape juice.

sparkling juice anyone?

Waking up at 3:30 am to make the sunrise flight, and getting back to our hotel at 8, made a 9 am breakfast feel like dinner, but we couldnt quite get back to sleep with the lure of Turkish bazaars reopening for the day. My advice for a visit to Turkey and your hot air balloon ride – save Istanbul for another time, and head straight to Goreme!