Sunday, January 31, 2010

7. Go cross country skiing

Here's an embarrassing confession. I have lived in Vermont for over a decade and I have never gone skiing -- Alpine or Nordic -- in all that time. But this weekend I began making amends and started acting like a real Vermonter thanks to my friend and former student, Dan S. After checking out my list, he shot me an email suggesting that a lesson at Bolton Valley where he's working as an instructor, was in order. Having lost out on my moonlight snowshoe by not signing up in time, I took him up on the suggestion and spent my Sunday afternoon learning about gliding and stopping and turning and double-poling and making herringbone tracks up hills. Dan is yet another of the Saint Mike's Wilderness Program's highly-trained former instructors, and it shows. He spent much of his time since graduation in Bolivia leading white water and river kayaking, as well as mountain biking, trips. Now that he's back in Vermont, he's teaching winter sports, and my lesson followed Dan's weekly session with a group of 5 to 7 year olds. It was a great time, and I am looking forward to trying skate skiing when Dan will being teaching that with the SMC Wilderness Program later in February.

Of course I found myself feeling like an idiot for not having done this the last ten winters. Cross country skiing is fun, not very gear-intensive, easy to learn (at least the basics) and, because you're always moving, there's not the bone-chilling element of ice climbing. Plus, you can do it in really lovely places. In other words, it's an ideal winter activity, and I can't wait to do some more. Who's up for doing rounds two and three and four with me?

In the first picture Dan is pulling the skis and poles I'll be using, and Dan took the one of me while we were out skiing on a trail (not sure why my skis are facing in all different directions, but I'm sure there was a fine reason at the time). Dan's boss thoughtfully took the third shot before we went out on a second trail.

52 Ways to Say I Love You

In Korean, with a grateful shout-out to friend and former student Heather, who's spent the last year teaching in South Korea and will soon be embarking on a trip to India and Nepal (which I, of course, think is a phenomenal plan!)

I love you - 사랑해 (Sa rang hey)
Two beers, please - 맥주 두병 주세요 (Mak ju do byeong ju se yo)
Hello - 안녕 (Anyoung)
Goodbye - 잘가 (Chal ga)

Coming Attractions

Penguin Plunge Saturday, February 6. The extended forecast for next Saturday is not reassuring me. But it's not too late for anyone else to contribute to the cause, either by signing up as well (Josh and Emily are on the Saint Mike's team now too!) or making a donation (thanks, Heather, for making a donation all the way from South Korea!) (

STILL need to decide about whether President's Day weekend will be a New York City trip to include ice skating at Rockefeller Center, or a weekend of working on winter sports (Alpine skiing, snowboarding, night-time snow shoeing and/or skiing, and learning to spin and jump in figure skating have all not been grappled with yet -- so much to do!). But if I don't decide soon, I'll probably wind up going with the latter just by default. So, if you're up for either option, let me know SOON, and once I've figured it out, I'll put the plan in a future post.

Try skate skiing on Saturday, February 20. Dan S. will be teaching this alternate form of cross-country skiing, and I am optimistic that I might actually pick this one up fairly expeditiously because it involves some of the same skills of the only winter sport I'm already reasonably good at (ice skating). Either way, it should be fun, and I hope some of my friends among my colleagues and students will want to try it too.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

6. Learn to Make Fresh Mozzarella

This New Thing was of a definitely different variety than the last two. Over a year ago my friend and colleague Mark had reported to me one day that one of his many new pursuits was cheese-making, and that making fresh mozzarella was actually a relatively easy and quick process. So, when I started to put my list together in the fall, I went back to Mark and asked him if he'd commit to showing me how to make it. In fact, it was the first thing I scheduled on the list. Two other friends, my colleague Valerie who suggested a number of the things that went on the list, and former student Dan H. who is on the hook to teach me a whole bunch of New Things beginning with bicycle maintenance this year, were also up for a lesson. So, on a bitterly cold and windy Thursday night we got together in my kitchen to get a cooking (and biology) lesson from Mark. We learned about hydrophobic and hydrophylic molecules, denatured proteins and the importance of pH and temperature for optimum enzyme action.

We also learned, as did Mark, that if you fail to label your salt and citric acid, you might mistake one for the other when you add it to the milk, and your cheese won't curdle properly, no matter how much heating and rennet-adding you do. That's what happened to the ill-fated first batch we made. The resulting cheese looked like ricotta and tasted a bit like marscapone (but not as smooth and sweet). Luckily, Mark had instructed both Valerie and I to each provide a gallon of milk, so we tried again with the second gallon and taste-tested the "acid" to discover it was actually salt.

The basic steps of mozzarella making are actually pretty simple, once you make sure you're clear on which ingredient is which. Oversimplifying only a little, here is what you do:
1. Pour the gallon of milk in a big kettle, add diluted citric acid and slowly heat to 90 degrees.
2. Add the rennet (the stuff that makes the cheese separate)and heat till thickened and the solid curds separate from the liquid whey (which is what is used to make ricotta). In the category of Too Much Information, if you don't already know it, rennet comes from the lining of calves' stomachs (it's an enzyme that breaks down milk, so that makes sense, right?), although like zillions of other substances it can also be produced by genetically modified bacteria now.
3. Drain the whey, and heat the curds in the microwave. When they are hot, form into a ball and stretch it till it starts to break. Repeat the heating and stretching until the ball looks like the consistency of the mozzarella you buy at the store.
4. Wrap it in plastic wrap (so a "skin" doesn't develop), chill it, and eat it.

That's it. Assuming no problems like we had with the first batch, the whole process only takes around half an hour. It takes a fair amount of milk to make a not-so-big log of cheese, but of course, the satisfaction is in having made it yourself. If I had my act together yesterday, this could have been the first Long Distance Tandem New Thing, because my sister Katrinka and brother in law Brian (and of course, my fab niece Tigist)were planning to also make mozzarella for the first time in their kitchen in Tacoma. But I didn't coordinate it well, and they'll be reporting in after they try it this weekend. They'll be glad they did; this is definitely a good New Thing to learn. Thanks to Valerie, Dan H. and especially, our teacher Mark!

I've included a few shots from our lesson. There's one of Valerie and I draining the curds from the whey (I know it doesn't look particularly appetizing at this stage). There's another taken less than five minutes later when the cheese has been transformed under Mark's stretching instructions so it looks like the kind we all know and love (though why I look so serious in the picture, I'm not sure. I can only say that cheese-making is a very, very serious business). There's one of Dan (gray shirt) and our teacher Mark (white turtleneck) proudly holding up the finished product. Finally, Valerie helpfully points out which was the success and which the failure of our two batches.

My overall assessment would be that, relative to say, ice climbing, making your own mozzarella is pretty impressive for the level of effort. ("Oh, did you like the lasagna? Yes, I did make it, and of course also the ingredients that went into it. It was nothing, really. I whipped it up while you were looking up the definitions of all the stuff on your gear list for ice climbing.")

52 Ways to Say I Love You

In Luganda (Spoken in the country of Uganda), with a big thank you to student/friend/fellow AIDS activist Madison.

Hello Oli Oltya (Literally: How are you?)
Good by Walaba
I love you Nkwagala (Can also mean I like you or I want you, so if you're showing off at a bar in Uganda be a little careful)
May I have two beers please? Mpayo beer biili?

Coming Attractions

Take a cross country ski lesson. Sunday afternoon January 31 at Bolton Valley. You snooze, you lose. That's the lesson I learned this week when I went to sign up for the moonlight snow shoe sponsored by the Wilderness Program, only to find it was completely full. It might be just as well because it is supposed to be ridiculously cold Saturday night. Luckily, SMC alum and world-wide outdoor sport instructor Dan S. took a look at my list and shot me an email suggesting a cross country ski lesson might be in order. So, I'll be taking him up on that on Sunday instead of the full moon hike. All's well that ends well.

Penguin Plunge Saturday, February 6. I still haven't talked myself out of jumping into the freezing (and maybe literally frozen) waters of Lake Champlain for this Special Olympics benefit. And it's not too late for anyone else to contribute to the cause, either by signing up as well (Josh and Emily are on the Saint Mike's team now too!) or making a donation (

I still haven't decided whether the following long President's Day weekend will be a New York City trip to include ice skating at Rockefeller Center, or a weekend of working on winter sports (Alpine skiing, snowboarding, night-time snow shoeing and/or skiing, and learning to spin and jump in figure skating have all not been grappled with yet -- so much to do!). So, if you're up for either option, let me know, and once I've figured it out, I'll put the plan in a future post.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

5. Try snow shoe hiking

No doubt about it, this week's New Thing was easier (and a lot less cold) than last week's -- not that I'm complaining about either one. Today I did a new trail -- Nebraska Notch, which is a very small part of the much more extensive Long Trail -- in a new season (Winter) on snow shoes. As with last week's outing,the hike was sponsored by the Saint Mike's Wilderness Program. An added bonus this week is that I'm good friends with two of the participants, Josh, who was one of the Wilderness student leaders, and Connor, who I convinced to get up early on a Sunday morning to hike up the mountain with me. Both Connor and Josh are also avid travellers which meant that we could and did compare notes about all kinds of past and future travel destinations while hiking up and back from Taylor Lodge. (Josh should get some kind of award for figuring out how to visit 12 different countries during his last semester's study abroad in Denmark, while still managing to send home answers to my constant barrage of questions about the health care systems of the Scandanavian countries he was studying, as well as daily bulletins about the International Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen).

If you've ever walked, you can snow shoe. There's not much gear involved -- the snow shoes themselves, plus most of us were wearing special boots over our hiking boots, basically to keep our feet warmer. Most of the participants also used hiking poles, but they're optional, and given my personal aversion to extra gear, I chose not to. Beyond that, you just need to strap the snow shoes on, get used to walking with a little wider stance than normal, and proceed up your mountain trail.

Our route today was a four mile loop up-and-back from the trail head on the road to Taylor Lodge, where we took in the sights and snapped some pictures. Though there were a few steep-ish sections (where I learned that you want to kick in your toes to let the teeth of your snow shoes get good traction), the whole trek was pretty laid-back, and a very nice introduction to hiking on snow shoes. The Wilderness Program offers somewhat more rigorous snow shoe hikes, including up Mount Mansfield and Camel's Hump, the two tallest peaks in Vermont, and I am pretty sure I'll be doing a more challenging snow shoe hike before the winter's over. Basically, I discovered snow showing is for everyone, and if you're missing your summer hiking, this is a great winter activity. I've included pictures of the whole student group; our terrific leaders, Andy and Josh; a view from Taylor Lodge; a picture of Connor and I in front of the sign at the trail head; and a shot that Josh took of me while we were walking up. All Sunday mornings should be so fun!

52 Ways to Say I Love You

Danish: With thanks to Josh for the language lesson on the way up to Taylor Lodge!

Hej- hi (sounds like "hi")
Hej Hej- Bye (sounds like "hi hi")
Tak- Thanks (sounds like "tok")
Jeg elsker dej- I love you (sounds like "Yi el ska die")
Kan jeg få to øl tak? -can I get two beers, please?

Coming Attractions

Lots of New Things are on tap for February and the rest of January, and there are lots of places where I hope others will want to join in.

Take a ballet class. Class started last Wednesday evening at the Flynn, and I now know 1st through 5th positions as well as having become acutely aware that I'm no Maria Tallchief (Though actually, that wasn't exactly a shock). But now that I've started, I'll keep going for the rest of the semester with Crystal, and we'll see how it goes.

Learn to make fresh mozzarella. Mark and Valerie are still coming over to my kitchen on Thursday, January 28 at 5:30, when Mark will reveal the secrets of turning ordinary milk into one of my favorite foods, fresh mozzarella cheese. Anyone else want to learn, let me know.

Try a full moon snow shoe hike. On Saturday, January 30, I'll be strapping on snow shoes again to join the Wilderness Program for a snow hike at night. My friend and colleague Traci is planning on joining in. Anyone else?

Take a Penguin Plunge. Erin and I have joined the Saint Mike's team and will be jumping into the freezing cold water of Lake Champlain at 11 am on Saturday, February 6. You too, can sign up, or if you're feeling slightly less adventurous, be a sponsor!

Go ice skating at Rockefeller Center . Although I haven't decided for sure, I am thinking that the weekend of February 13-15 (President's Day Weekend) may be a good time to head to New York City for this one. If I do it by myself, I'll probably fly and stay with a friend while I'm there. However, if there are a few people who want to do it with me, we can make a collective plan for travelling down and staying for one or two nights. So if you're up for a couple days in New York City, featuring an ice skating session and possibly some other New Things, let me know. If I don't go that weekend, I will probably use the weekend to try both Alpine and Nordic skiing and plan the trip to New York City in one of the following two weekends.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

4. Try ice climbing

So, of all the things on The List, I think ice climbing had the most strikes against it going into the experience. For starters, it just plain seemed too hard. Climbing up a frozen waterfall by the spikes strapped to your boots and the curved ice picks in your hands looks pretty tough (and I have to admit that, at least for me, it turned out that looks were not deceiving.) There was also the cold factor. Like my beloved and remarkably fat cat, Peanut, I am a heat-seeking creature, and spending a day getting as close as possible to a solid sheet of ice is totally contrary to my nature. And then there is the problem of gear. I am all about simplicity. Running is my exercise of choice, despite a lack of any particular talent for it, because it's so simple. Throw on a pair of shoes, a t-shirt and some shorts, walk out the door almost anywhere in the world and you're good to go. When I travel, whether to Tacoma or Tanzania, it is a point of pride to travel light. It fits in a carry-on, the only bag I bring, or it doesn't go. So when I saw the gear-filled packing list for our single day of ice climbing, loaded with clothing and accessories I've never worn (like gaitors and crampons) and tools I'd never seen, I seriously considered bagging the whole thing. I thought about just throwing up a note on Facebook to see if anyone wanted to meet me for Manhattans (a drink I've never tried) at the Half Lounge (a place I've never been to) and calling it this week's New Thing. But where's the challenge in that?

So instead, on Saturday morning I put on what felt like a hundred layers of (non-cotton) clothing, grabbed my borrowed pack full of borrowed gear, and headed up to the student center at Saint Mike's to meet the rest of the group. The place we were were going is at Smuggler's Notch about a 45-minute drive away, and the first thing I discovered is that you don't drive directly to it. You park about three quarters of a mile away and walk uphill on a road closed for the winter in your ice climbing boots with all your gear. When we got to the area of frozen waterfalls, we learned how to put on our harnesses and crampons (the spiky torture device-looking things you strap on your boots) and practiced walking without spearing ourselves in the legs with the crampons. Then we tried out swinging our tools (the ice pick-like things) into the ice wall. Our leaders, Eben, Jeremy and Drennan set up the ropes for us, did a bunch of demonstration and instruction, and then got us started climbing and belaying (basically, keeping the anchor rope tight from below for the person climbing). There were five of us learning (Randall, Alex, Chris, Danielle and me), and so we had lots of one-on-one coaching and help from our three instructors. Around 2:30 everyone was tired and cold but pleased at having done battle with the elements and the ice wall. It was time to break down the climbing equipment for the day, do the walk back out to the car (past a number of snow boarders and skiers sharing the road) and come home.

Here are a few lessons I learned and thoughts I had from my day of ice climbing.

1. It's less like rock climbing than I thought it would be. The rope part is obviously similar, but the actual climbing motions are pretty different. In rock climbing it's a lot about stretching and finding holds where you can for fingers and toes, whereas ice climbing is about trying to keep in a vertical line with your climbing tools (like a ladder) and kicked-in feet (as you can see in the picture of me here, I wasn't doing such a hot job at that on my first climb).

2. Another way it's really different than rock climbing is that the cold is a huge factor -- at least it was for me. We were actually really lucky because we went out on an ideal day, weather-wise. It was relatively warm (high 20s and low 30s) and there were only a few cold gusts of wind. Still, by the end of the day, the nature of the sport -- bursts of serious effort while you're climbing followed by periods of standing still while you're belaying or resting -- really wreak havoc with your body temperature. When I got dressed in the morning I thought all the layers were silly, but a very important lesson I will take away is that there is no such thing as too many layers. Better to have them and be constantly taking them on and off.

3. One thing that my first experiences of rock and ice climbing had in common is that it was the instructors and fellow climbers that made all the difference. Eben and student leaders Drennan and Jeremy somehow managed to be totally professional but easygoing and funny at the same time. It's a little mean, I suppose, that their mastery of the sport made their demonstrations look deceptively simple, but their patience and help more than made up for it, and I came away more impressed than ever with our school's Wilderness Program. The same was true for the other participants in the group. Alex, Chris, Danielle and Randall made the whole experience great with their senses of humor and general attitude. I'm particularly grateful to Randall, who, as an experienced climber, patiently helped me with my ropes and gear, and belayed and coached me up my first climb. There's a picture of him climbing here that unfortunately is from a bit of a distance, but does show a better view of what the ice structure we started on looked like.

4. Spiders are awesome. I have always liked spiders anyway, probably from reading Charlotte's Web when I was little, and when I was a kid I would run to the rescue if my brother, Jim, who hated them, was about to squash one. But my climbing experiences have given me a whole new appreciation, and I now think they are among the most impressive of all God's creatures. It's amazing to me that this activity that requires so much gear, effort and muscle strain on my part is just what spiders do every day, all day, as a matter of course. It's pretty remarkable, really.

5. Although I'll definitely keep going with rock climbing, I'm less sure about ice climbing. I'd like to give it another go, and may sign up for another day-long session this winter, but the cold thing is a problem for me. It's a great workout (my arms and shoulders especially are definitely feeling it today), and really rewarding (though my knees are both a collection of bruises right now). Overall it was a very cool way to spend a day doing something I'd never contemplated was within my ability to try with a group of excellent people. If you're looking for a challenge, this is definitely one to add your list!

52 Ways to Say I Love You

I'm a little tired and sore from yesterday's climbing, and so I'm going to cop out with an easy language today...French.

I love you. Je t'aime.
May I have two beers, please? Est-ce que je peux prendre deux bieres, s'il vous plait?
Hello Bonjour
Good-by Au revoir

Coming Attractions

All the plans listed in previous posts (ballet class starting this Wednesday, January 20, mozzarella-making on January 28, Penguin Plunge on February 6)are still on tap. However, I have one change and one new plan.

Snowshoe Nebraska Notch on Sunday, January 24 instead of Snake Mountain on January 23. The Nebraska Notch trip is being led by one Saint Mike's best student activists (and Wllderness Leaders) Josh, and I think some Social Justice League students are going to sign up too.

Full Moon Snowshoe Saturday, January 30. Doing a night-time winter outing is another activity on The List, and I am thinking of doing this Wilderness Program outing to complete it, especially if any of my student or colleague friends at Saint Mike's want to sign up, too. Let me know!

Friday, January 8, 2010

2. Go to Nepal: (Part II) A Top Ten List

Now that I'm back from Nepal, I was feeling a little daunted trying to figure out how to type up the experience in a single post. And then I realized I should go with the strategy that seems to be working pretty well for me so far: if in doubt, create a list. So here is my attempt to capture my Nepal trip through a Top Ten List of Things I Loved About Going to Nepal.

10.Swyambunath (The Monkey Temple) The first two places on my list are both stupas, which are dome-shaped places of worship for Buddhists. Swyambunath sits on a very big hill on the western side of Kathmandu, and it actually feels more like a complex, surrounded by smaller stupas, statues, and a monastery that houses the monks that maintain the stupa and worship at the site. To get there, you ascend 300 steep steps (or if you're lazy, drive most of the way, park and go up a fraction of the stair path). The stairs are lined with statues, mostly of animals that the gods use as vehicles (and which are an interesting example of the mix of Buddhism and Hinduism here, since this is a Buddhist site hosting Hindu statues). The air is filled with prayer flags and, as you might guess from the name, there are lots and lots of monkeys everywhere.

9. The Boddha Stupa This is the largest stupa in Nepal, and, as I mentioned in an earlier post, is a center of the Tibetan community there, which guarantees that it is a gorgeous and colorful place, with monks in their robes and people wearing clothes and selling rugs, paintings and textiles in the most beautiful, rich hues. You can walk around the base of the stupa (but you need to go in a clockwise direction) and spin the rows of prayer wheels, and in the evening they line the base with small lit butter lamps.

8. Durbar Square (x2) There are three famous Durbar Squares in the Kathmandu Valley, and I saw two of them, in Kathmandu and Bhaktapur (Patam, alas must wait for another visit). Each Durbar Square holds a (former) Royal Palace and so, so much more. There are literally dozens of temples and religious statues, and not surprisingly, given the flood of Nepalis, religious pilgrims and Western tourists in the area, there are also masses of shops and outdoor vendors selling everything from masks to intricate metal door handles to rugs to jewelry. One of the things I learned on this trip is that the pagoda style we associate with China actually originated in Nepal, and some of the temples take this shape and others are the shikhara style that is typical for Indian Hindu temples. The whole experience of walking through either Durbar Square is a type of sensory overload, with vivid colors in everything from the crushed marigolds and red powder offerings at the temples to the beautiful clothing of the people, and the sounds of bells being rung outside the temples.

7. Eating One way in which I'm a pretty good traveller in developing countries is that I invariably like whatever is the starchy staple that is the mainstay of the local diet, and Nepal was no exception. In this case that food is dhal bhaat, a stew or soup of lentils together with rice. At home I try to be a vegetarian, but when I travel anything goes. Some of the other things I tried (and liked) were yak cheese, buff momos (dumplings stuffed with water buffalo meat), milk tea and mint lemonade, which doesn't sound exotic, but as you can see from the picture, bears a striking resemblance to pond scum (though it tasted great).

6. Shopping Anyone who knows me well may be astonished to see this on my list, since I have gone head-to-head with my two year old niece Tigist for the title of Lowest Tolerance for Retail Settings and come up the winner on several occasions. But shopping in markets in developing countries is different. Under the watchful eyes of Cliff and my new friend Jane, both outstanding bargainers, I honed my skills going back and forth with vendors for necklaces and pashminas (scarves woven out of a special wool that's like cashmere). Although I am generally a pushover, I am proud to say that on this trip I rose from the ranks of the abysmally bad bargainers to the almost-competent.

5. Meeting Great New People I fondly remember the day I realized that my choice to become an academic carried a very important advantage in that it meant that I would by definition always live in a college town. I like college towns because they have lively student populations, interesting, progressive politics, and lots of cultural and social events and groups. In the same vein, many years ago I realized that if I travelled I would always meet interesting people. There are, of course, the new people you meet at the destination. And there are also the fellow travellers and ex-pats, and within their ranks are always a large cluster of fascinating people who have had amazing experiences and new ideas. Some of the new people I will remember from this trip are: Emily and Jesse, the couple who just finished their Peace Corps service as teacher trainers in Mozambique (and who gave me a Portuguese language lesson for a future post); Birat, the engineering student that Nicole and I spent an hour of quality time with while waiting for the telecom bureaucrats to arrive and open their cubicle so the bill could get paid (and who gave me my Nepalese language lesson for the words below); the three Army officers we met at Nagarkot, especially Manish, who answered a million questions, compared notes about favored travel destinations, and gave me my Chinese language lesson (also below); Tim, Sheila and Ted, three American expats who I met at the New Year's Eve dinner party Nicole hosted, all colleagues with Cliff for USAID and the State Department, who gave me my first orientation to Nepalese politics; Rajendra, our helpful tour guide at Baktapur who nonchalantly told us that he spoke five languages, all learned simply from talking with tourists; and Jane and Kurt, who enthusiastically cheered me up the climbing wall, coached me on buying pashminas, put up with my dour expressions when I feared we were hopelessly lost while hiking, and humored my entreaties to stay in a freezing cold hotel just because I had to stay at a place called The Hotel at the End of the Universe.

4. Seeing Cliff and Nicole Making new friendships is wonderful, but just as good is renewing old ones. Cliff and Nicole are walking testaments to the idea that life is about being open to new places, people and experiences, and that, if you are, you can do anything. Cliff and I have been friends for almost ten years, and he was the one who taught me how to run a student international service trip and coached me through the ups and downs of my first two experiences doing it, to Kenya and Tanzania, respectively. Given that the original basis of our friendship was our mutual interest in East Africa, and in working with students there, we both thought it a bit ironic that I'd be visiting him in 2010 in Nepal, with Cliff walking to work at the the US Embassy every morning. But life is funny that way. I've known Nicole for two or three years less than I've known Cliff, and I was so impressed at her incredible adaptation to life in Nepal, from driving all over the city (which I could not even contemplate doing -- the streets of Tanzania can't begin to compete with Kathmandu) to graciously feeding, orienting and chauffering an endless train of guests like me to making her own yogurt and bread and cereal and anything else that we grab off the shelf at Price Chopper without a second thought. Cliff and Nicole not only made this trip possible for me, they made it wonderfully memorable, and I am deeply in their debt.

3. Playing with Jailyn Even in the most exotic places in the world, some of the best experiences are the most simple and universal. Spending time with Jailyn, Cliff and Nicole's remarkable daughter, falls in that category. Of her four years on this earth, two were spent at the family's first post in Honduras, and the last year and a half has been in Kathmandu. Her passport has more stamps in it than mine, and instead of watching TV, dreaming of Disneyworld, and eating Pop Tarts and Captain Crunch, she's spent the first years of her life hiking, rock climbing, riding horses (and the occasional elephant), developing her imagination, and eating dhal bhaat and momos. I can only imagine what a head start she has on life, because she is so comfortable in so many settings, with all kinds of people. She's also just an amazingly fun kid, and we played dress up, did lots of "Princess dances", made up stories, and built elaborate block homes for her dolls and toy cars. In the picture I posted here, we're doing Dead Bug, our way of getting the room to stop spinning when we were both dizzy from me swinging her around in circles too much.

The last two items on the list are tied for first place because they both made such a deep impression on me.

1. Pashipatinath Maybe it's because it was the first religious site I visited. Maybe it's because Cliff and I walked there in a surreal hour-long hike down the middle of the major roads of the city totally devoid of motorized vehicles because of the political strike going on. Or maybe it was because I first saw it on New Year's Day and was in a mood to think about cycles and transitions in life (and death). Whatever the reason, this place blew me away, and it's the only place I visited twice during my brief stay. The site is dedicated to the god Shiva (the Destroyer)and everything rises up from both sides of the sacred Bagmati River (which flows into the Ganges) where cremated ashes are scattered. On one side of the river are six ghats (the cremation platforms) and behind them are the temple (which I couldn't visit because non-Hindus can't go in), the hospice where people go to die so they can be cremated here, and places where religious pilgrims (many of whom travel from India) can stay. On that side, there is also a home for the elderly destitute. On the other side of the river from the cremations, there are people using the water for more ordinary purposes, like washing themselves and their clothes, and there are terraced concrete steps that lead up to a park and wooded area. There are also sadhus (holy men) who survive on donations from visitors and tourists sitting in various spots around the complex. I think one of the most striking things about the experience for me was witnessing the sacred and the mundane going on simultaneously. On the two occasions I was there, I saw funeral rites and burnings going on continuously, yet only a few feet away, children would be dragging the water with magnets for the coins that were sacrificed with the burning bodies, and people would be doing their laundry. The privacy that we Westerners so deeply prize was non-existent, but people seemed to have their own sense of place and space so that they could conduct these ceremonies unaffected by the activity going on all around them.

1. Seeing the Himalayas from Nagarkot How can you possibly go wrong when your goal is to watch the sun come up over the tallest mountain range in the world, and you get to stay at a place (however cold) with the best name ever? And you get to watch the sunrise from a hill just outside your door in front of a cool little Hindu temple and then have lovely milk tea and think about how else you want to view the amazing mountains around you. And if, on top of that, you meet fascinating soldiers who just happen to have been around the world (or are preparing to go) to preserve the peace in some of the most dangerous places on the planet AND you wind up spending a morning walking through forests and villages and terraced fields and sets straight out of the coolest book of fairy tales you had when you were a kid, might you pinch yourself and feel like an amazingly lucky person? I did, and I do.

Nepal is truly a magical place. I hope to explore it more deeply some day, but in the meantime, I'm so grateful for the chance to begin a new decade in such a wonderful and fascinating country.

52 Ways to Say I Love You...

I've gotten a little behind in my language posting, so I'm catching up here. First is the Nepali version that Birat, the engineering student at the telecom office, gave me and second is Chinese (Mandarin) that Manish walked me through standing underneath the observation tower at the top of a hill in Nagarkot. Nepali (with credits to Birat)

Hello Namaste
Good by Pheri vetola
I love you Ma tinieli maya garchu
May I have two beers, please? Kripaya malya dui ota beer denuse? Mandarin Chinese (with credits to Manish)

Hello Ni Hao
Good by Zai Zain
I love you Wo ai ni
May I have two beers, please? Qing wen. Wo yao liang ping pijiu. (Literally: Excuse me. I want two beers)

Coming Attractions

So, it's January 12 and I've done three New Things from the list (start a blog, try rock climbing and go to Nepal). But unless I can find a millionaire who feels like bankrolling me, I need to stay put for a few weeks and do some mundane things like teach a few classes and find someone to fix my clogged sink and broken dishwasher (or else add "learn plumbing" to my list of New Things). But there are still lots of things on the list that are going to happen in the next few weeks. Drop a line if you want to be part of any of them.

Try ice climbing I'm signed up for a day of ice climbing with our college Wilderness Program this Saturday, January 16. Even the packing list, which seems awfully long for a single day outside, and includes crampons (which I wouldn't recognize if I saw) and non-specific "technical tools" has me a bit apprehensive. But, hey, the point is to TRY NEW THINGS, so I'm game. Anyone else?

Ballet class starts for the semester at the Flynn Center on Wednesday, January 20. Crystal signed up too; anyone else interested in joining us?

Take a snowshoe hike up a mountain (daytime) The Wilderness Program is leading a snowshoe hike up Snake Mountain on Saturday, January 23. Assuming I am able to sign up in time, I'll be on it. I have a couple students who I'm hoping will join me -- who else wants to?

Learn to Make Fresh Mozzarella Mark is still going to teach Valerie and me in my kitchen on the evening of Thursday, January 28. Anyone else who wants to come over and learn, just let me know.

Take the Penguin Plunge Erin and I are still going to join the ranks of many other crazy people jumping through the ice into Lake Champlain to benefit Special Olympics on Saturday, February 6 at 11 AM. I'm hosting a weekend reunion at my place for some of my former students who have gone with me to Tanzania, so their job is to bring down my Snuggie and a million towels for after it's over. Anyone else want to jump in (or sponsor me)?

Serendipity 1. See a sunrise over the highest mountains in the world

My sister Katrinka made the great suggestion that I start a new list of bonus items - things that I didn't plan on, but had opportunities to do because of the original list. And my brother-in-law Brian's stepmother Kathy (there has to be a simpler way of putting that!)took it further with the excellent idea that it be labelled the Serendipity List. So, here is #1 on the Serendipity List, and I must say, it was truly awesome, in the literal and figurative senses of the word.

At Cliff and Nicole's suggestion, my new friends Jane and Kurt (whose visit to see Cliff and Nicole overlapped with mine) and I decided to get a bit out of Kathmandu to visit the city of Baktapur (such a cool place that the whole city center has been designated by the UN as a UNESCO World Heritage Site), and then continue onward (and upward) to the village of Nagarkot, which is famous as the best place stay if you are too lazy to actually climb up one of the tallest mountains of the world but still want to catch an outstanding view of the sun rising at dawn over the Himalayas.

According to what I was told, once upon a time the heart of Nepal was comprised of three kingdoms that seem to me a lot like city-states, Kathmandu, neighboring Patam and Baktapur. Each of them had (and still has) a Durbar Square, which is the area that kings hung out in, and is loaded in all three cases with scores of temples and fabulous architecture. We paid a guide to take us around Baktapur, and though the tour began in Durbar Square, it also extended to neighboring residential areas, where people live in 3-4 story houses that are hundreds of years old (and often house the family livestock on the first floor), and areas where several local industries -- woodworking, pottery, and Tibetan Thanka painting-- were going on. Since Kurt and I are both water nerds, snapping pictures of wells and community taps wherever we went, our guide pointed those out as well.

After an afternoon spent taking in the sights (and there were a lot) of Baktapur, we headed up to Nagarkot the wimpy way (i.e. by car, as opposed to the hikers and lone mountain biker we saw laboring up the hairpin turns and switchbacks of the mountain road). At the village we had a number of options of where to stay, but for me the choice was clear. If you were in a village with a bunch of hotels, but one of them was called the Hotel at the End of Universe, wouldn't you agree that it's a very easy call? And if that hotel happened to have no central heating, AND the generator providing electricity didn't happen to come on till 9 pm, AND the rooms were set up in such a way that the single person in the group (me) would have an enormous open room and the couple would be stuck in a very small attached room with a very large bed, AND the whole complex happened to be situated at the top of a many sets of steep stairs carved into the hilltop, wouldn't you agree that all of these circumstances just added to the charming quirkiness of the place? I'm sure you would, as Jane and Kurt did, after only about 45 minutes of begging and arm-twisting on my part.

The next morning, though, I felt vindicated, when we scrambled up a few more steps to the top of the hill outside our room. On the hilltop sits a cool little Hindu temple, and a person can stand there, as we and some tourists from Holland did, watching the sun rise and contemplating the fact that it is coming over the tallest mountain range on the planet.

After the sunrise and a rib-sticking breakfast of banana porridge and milk tea (Kurt deferred and had Nepali fried bread), we took the hotel owner's suggestion and drove over to a tower in the area with even more clear views of the mountains. That turned out to be a great move, not only for the views, but also for the chance meeting with a group of three officers from the Nepali Army who were taking a day off from the training exercise they were conducting. As you may or may not know, Nepal provides a disproportionately large contingent of UN peacekeeping forces, and one of the members of the group had served in some pretty extreme situations, including recently in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Another, Manish, is a doctor who got his medical training in China and is about to be deployed to Haiti. He patiently answered the questions I showered him with, and also gave me an impromptu Mandarin Chinese lesson for my ongoing language quest (which will go in a later post because I packed the paper I wrote it on). Our new friends offered to show us a hike we could take from the tower to a nearby village and walked us to the trail head before bidding us farewell.

Of course, in typical travel fashion, the hike turned out to be not the hour we expected, but more like three and a half. It took us through forests, terraced fields, clusters of farm houses, goat and cow herding trails, and lots of people who paused from their work to greet us. It was kind of like walking through a charming fairy tale, except for the unfriendly snarling dogs and a random loose bull bent on defending their turf. After a lot of walking and a bit of concern that perhaps we took a wrong turn somewhere, we came to the main road, and Jane spotted our car in the distance. We popped in it and drove back to Kathmandu, very pleased with ourselves and our trip to The End of the Universe. If you get the chance to check it out yourself, I hope you will. I can give you the name of a memorable place to stay.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

3. Try rock climbing (in Nepal!)

Although rocking climbing is definitely on The List, I thought it would be something I'd try for the first time this spring or summer in VERMONT. But, I failed to think about two key facts. First, Nepal is pretty much the climbing capital of the world, and second, I am staying with what I am sure is the most adventure-inclined and athletic family in all of the US government's foreign service employ. Cliff, Nicole and Jai practice rock climbing at least weekly, and so they invited their guests (there are now three of us. The new additions are an awesome couple, Jane and Kirt, who arrived New Year's Day from Wisconsin) to join them. After enthusiastically cheering people on and obligingly recording my very first climb on camera, Jane and Kirt went out to see the amazing sights of the area, which is called Thamel and contains the hostels, restaurants and zillions of shops that house, feed and supply most of the visitors coming to Nepal to climb and trek. But I stuck around for my first session at rock climbing with some fabulous coaching.

As you can see from one of the photos, ALL of the family are experts including Jailyn who has already graduated from the children's to the adult climbing wall at the ripe old age of four. She very thoughtfully started my first climb in tandem with me -- it's a little humbling (but actually a lot of fun) to have a four year old reminding you to trust the rope! Although both Cliff and Nicole are outstanding climbers, Nicole only started a year ago (Cliff's been at it for many years, and used to climb as a Saint Mike's undergrad in Vermont), and she was infinitely patient with my first-time attempt.

Here are the things I learned about rock climbing in my three climbs of the morning:
1. Jailyn is right -- you can trust the rope and if you slip, it will catch you. I think there is a little life lesson in there somewhere.
2. Rock climbing asks a lot of your body. You have to use your arms and legs and fingers and toes, and really stretch in all directions. And you have to concentrate on that and nothing else to figure out what to do next.
3. It helps to have awesome teachers and if possible, a small child, as inspiration. I included this photo of Nicole talking me through the first climb and Jai going up in tandem with me, because they were a huge part of why it was such a cool experience.
4. Perhaps most important, rock climbing is REALLY fun. I fell on the first of the three climbs I did, and it was a good thing. Once I knew the rope would catch me, it was easier to concentrate on going up, and there is a ton of satisfaction in going higher than you did the time before and trying new challenges in each move up. I didn't make it to the top of the wall, but on my last climb I went most of the way (on an easy route) and was up almost 40 feet, which looked like a long way once I was back on the ground. I highly recommend it as something for everyone to try and will very DEFINITELY be doing this again back in Vermont! I am very excited to learn some more and then try it in the great outdoors.

Friday, January 1, 2010

2. Go to Nepal (Part 1: New Year's Day)

So, my plan had been to do a single post for each new thing, but there's just no way I can do only one post on Nepal. This first one is about two amazing sites I got to visit on New Year's Day: Pashupatinah and the Bodnath stupa. I am going to do a post about the family I'm staying with, my old friend Cliff, his wonderful wife Nicole and their unbelievably fun daughter Jai Lyn. But for right now, especially because it's late but I want to write this while it's still fresh, I wanted to describe a little bit about these two places.

Cliff and I walked from their place to Pashupatinah because there was a big political protest today that shut down all the roads in Kathmandu. These protests are fairly common and usually called by the Maoist Party, but this one was called by indigenous rights groups. In any case, it turned out to be a kindness for my purposes because getting there was about a 45 minute walk that let me see a lot more of the city than I would have by car.

Pashupatinah is a very important Hindu religious site, and the temple sits on the banks of the sacred Bagmati River. It is dedicated to the god Shiva, and many devout Hindus come to the hospice here when they know they will be dying soon so that they can be cremated and their ashes thrown into the river. There are six cremation blocks on the river, and at least today, when we visited, there was a nonstop flow of bodies being cremated. There are many fascinating rites that go along with the cremations, including covering the bodies with holy water, stripping them naked (under blankets and flowers), and making a last food offering of rice. The eldest son (or another one of the offspring if necessary) must shave his head after doing the funeral rites and go into a 13 day sort of seclusion in another building on the site. I couldn't get over the fact that these rituals and the cremations were all celebrated so openly and publicly, and it was certainly an interesting way to think about change and the cyclical nature of life on, of all days, the first day of the new year. There are a number of other temples and sculptures, as well as a set of caves that people stay in for meditation on the site. In fact, I'd say the whole thing was about as overwhelming to the senses as anything I've ever experienced.

By comparison, the Boudhnath stupa, that we walked to afterwards, was almost sedate. This is an enormous Buddhist temple surrounded by masses of small shops and cafes, with the Himalayas as a backdrop. It is also a sort of center of the Tibetan community in Nepal, and so there are all kinds of colorful Tibetan clothing being worn, and there are lots of robed Tibetan monks walking around. It is a beautiful sight, and full of all kinds of activity.

I'm including 3 pictures. One is a shot of the cremations and subsequent ash-depositing into the Bagmati River; in the second one I am sitting with a hindu holy man (sadhu) who has rubbed cremation ashes all over his body; and in the third I'm standing in front of the Boudhnath stupa (thanks to Cliff for taking the latter two shots on my camera!)

While I was walking around the stupa (you are supposed to go in only one direction, with the stupa on your right) looking at some elaborately-carved wooden doors I had a moment of feeling I was back in Zanzibar, which has similar carved-wood doors. And then I realized the comparison goes deeper and that I love the same thing about Nepal as I love about Zanzibar. They are both cross roads where religions and ethnicities and languages meet. On Zanzibar it is the meeting of mainland African culture with the Middle East, with smatterings of other Indian Ocean country influences. Similarly, Nepal sits at the crossroads of India and China, and of Buddhism and Hinduism, with chunks of other ethnicities and religions thrown in. I think the most fascinating spots on earth are the ones where cultures come together, and now I understand why Nepal has captured the imagination of so many people for so many years.