Space, cows, and alien abductions

Nevada hits both ends of multiple spectrums. Las Vegas, the city of excess. Lights. People. Glitz and glamour. It’s an otherworldly place. Big wins and losses sit next to each other at slot machines that look like they were designed by Lisa Frank during her cocaine years. The sights and sounds are loud, and gamblers sit stone-faced and beady-eyed. Everything is in your face. Immediate. Wild.

The rest of the state is large swaths of emptiness. Quiet, dark nights. Hard winters, and living hand-to-mouth. Wild in a completely different way.

Area 51. Depending on who you ask, it’s a whole lot of something or a big plot of nothing. It’s a place of excess in its own way, with lots of conspiracies, stories, and question marks. Just like Vegas, it’s otherworldly, but for its own reasons.

At the suggestion of my friend Leslie, a group of four of us decided to explore Nevada. Over the course of three days, we were in the car for 24 hours, driving nearly 1,000 miles, and we still didn’t see half of the state. But we saw a lot… and not a lot.

From excess to… nothing.

Jessica, Leslie, and I set out from northern San Diego to meet our friend Kathryn in Primm, Nevada, a one-exit town just west of Las Vegas bedazzled by three casinos, flashing marquees, and a rollercoaster. Once you’re within 50 miles of Vegas, especially on a Friday afternoon, traffic gets antsy. The speed limit is 70, but cars rocket down the fast lane or weave their way through traffic at Nascar speeds.

After eating at Primm and Proper inside the Primm Valley Resort, a “lively casino resort with three hotels.”

Then, when you’re within the Las Vegas city limits, you sit in traffic, no matter what time it is. The billboards, lights, and sights keep you somewhat entertained. One billboard, selling blinds, features a man dressed as a old-timey gangster. He’s holding an assault rifle. If you’re selling window treatments in Las Vegas, I suppose an AK-47 is one way to set yourself apart.

As we escape Vegas, I nearly miss the exit for Highway 93. We gas up before we start our final leg to Ely; in rural Nevada, you want to keep your gas tank above half-full. Even signs warn you to fill up. You don’t want to get caught with your gas light in the middle of nowhere.

We start north on 93. The sun is low in the sky, and traffic has thinned out dramatically. We see signs for all kinds of animal crossings and pass small lakes and pretty landscapes. Soon, it’s dark, and the scenery gives way to black.

It seems not much lives out here. There are campgrounds, a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-them towns, and poorly lit motels and closed restaurants. The hours feel longer at night, and my eyes tire from others’ high beams and from straining to see animals on the shoulders of the road. The last thing I need is to hit an elk while driving 70mph.

Then we’re driving through a low mountain pass. We see lights. We’ve stumbled into Ely (Ee-lee), a town of roughly 4,000 people, and it’s the most life we’ve seen in hours. Google instructs us to turn left at a stoplight, and we find ourselves on a very wide street that bumps into a train station at the end. Our inn is near the train station on the right.

The train station at the end of the street, as seen the next morning.

Parking is in slanted slots in front of the building. Lines have all but worn away, so I try my best to mirror the other car a few spots down. I fail, but it doesn’t matter. Ely doesn’t care.

The All Aboard Cafe & Inn, a great little place Leslie found.

We’ve landed 240 miles due north of Las Vegas. That doesn’t get you to within spitting distance of the Idaho border, or any other border. It’s a small town, but there’s a Family Dollar right down the road, so we haven’t left civilization behind.

Ely, Nevada

We’re greeted by the inn’s staff outside, next to my car. They kept the attached cafe open late because they knew we were en route, but we’ll be their last customers. It’s 7:30pm. We eat quickly, then check in to our rooms. It’s a quiet night. Jessica and I joke about reading the romance novels available on the inn’s communal bookshelf, but the draw of sleep is too strong.

We wake up the next morning to the sun painting the nearby mountains. There aren’t foothills here: it’s either flat ground stretching for miles or short mountains jutting up, a dash of snow sprinkled here and there. Trees are random, mostly where they’ve been planted, I think.

Nevada is a lot bigger than I’d given it credit for, and a large part of that is because it feels big. This realization hits me as I look out our room’s window. I can see a plain that stretches for miles, but the horizon is interrupted by short mountains on more than one side.

Standing at the Lehman Caves entrance, looking out at the basin below. Or valley. Or plain. A big flat open space.

The mountains squat, bold and mostly untroubled by people. Mostly. Locals apparently dump unused items wherever they want.

You get the feeling life here is hard sometimes. Out here, you probably don’t worry about what’s happening in Washington unless it directly affects you. Most cars are in working condition, but you won’t find Teslas. Many buildings and houses are in need of upkeep, though for a town so isolated, you can get what you need. Within reason.

The Shoshone, who built their lives in the basins and valleys around Ely, are now tucked into their “designated” plots of land. The original settlers now live in uniform housing and communities marked by green signs: “Entering Ely Shoshone Indian Res.”

When you leave Ely, or travel along Highway 50, which is known as the Loneliest Road, you make sure you have plenty of gas, as it’s likely over 100 miles until the next gas station. The landscape is often large swaths of land with nothing but free-roaming cattle and a solitary two-lane road slicing through it. Cell phone signals are generally weak or don’t exist.

But if all you need is a wide-open road, mountains on the horizon, and space, you’re right where you need to be. For the four of us, it’s an opportunity to hike, hang out, and be off our phones.

Great Basin National Park and Lehman Caves

At 9am on Saturday, dressed in long underwear and layers, we pile into my SUV and drive down the Loneliest Road to Great Basin National Park. The road is a lazy curve through a deceptively wide plain with mountains along its ridges. Rows of windmills take up a small portion of the flat, and I have to drive with both hands on the wheel to keep control when the gusts turn my car into a sail.

An hour and a few turns later, we’re climbing into the wild of Great Basin National Park. There are finally trees, and it’s a scene of green trees, white snow, blue skies, and dusty brown roads. The main trails we had planned to hit are cut off by thick patches of snow, so we improvise.

“Hiking” on a dirt road through empty campgrounds.

Our hike is through knee-deep snow, uphill. Wild turkeys, their large footprints marking both the snow and the mud in a series of random curves and lines, wander nearby. After a quick out-and-back, we leave for the Lehman Caves, which are a five-minute, slow drive to another part of the park.

We join a group of 12 others and a park ranger intern, who leads the tour.

Before lights were installed and flashlights were a thing, tours were taken by candlelight. Our guide showed us how much light one flame gives in a large cave: not a lot.

As the system had been found by a citizen (as opposed to a government employee or scientist) in 1923, then used for profit for many years, the caves are damaged: stalactites and stalagmites snapped off, initials burned into low ceilings by candles, and sections damaged by low-budget movies looking for sets that looked like other planets.

Initials of early “explorers” and visitors, who came to the cave to party, are burned into the ceiling with the candles they carried. Long ago, the NPS tried to get rid of the initials… by painting over them.

Nevada is a wild state, but we humans still make our mark on it, for better or worse.

On the way back to Ely after the tour, we stop by the Baker Archaeological Site. There’d been a small Fremont Indian village there that was excavated, then backfilled. It had been remote, as most settlements back then had been, I suppose. At the mercy of the elements.

Standing in the village, looking back at my lone car in the parking lot, Great Basin National Park in the background.

The afternoon was growing old, so we return to Ely and decide on the Jailhouse Casino-Motel Cellblock Steak House for dinner. Jailhouse is in downtown Ely across the street from a casino with a large cutout of a man swinging a pickaxe. A very suggestively placed pickaxe.

You can take the casino out of Vegas, but you can’t take the Vegas out of the casino.

The conspiracy in the middle of nowhere

Sunday morning we make our way to Garnet Hill just outside downtown Ely. It’s an appropriately named place where you can search for your own garnets. En route, we end up off-roading and finding ditches full of old, rusted cars, trucks, school buses, and anything else you could possibly want to ditch. It’s like a rusty way of humans marking their territory.

Both Google and Apple tried to take us the difficult way to Garnet Hill, so we ended up hiking there.

After a quick, successful search for garnets, we make our way back to the Love’s Travel Stop in Ely, top off the tank, and start for Rachel, by way of Warm Springs.

Highways 6 and 375 are mostly bold gray lines surrounded by brown. They would look tired if it weren’t for the brilliant blue and crisp white of the sky and clouds above, and the snow-drizzled mountains in the distance. Plants that eventually become tumbleweeds dot the landscape, but it doesn’t seem like enough for the grazing cows.

I stopped the car, rolled down the window, took a few pictures and this pano, rolled up my window, then continued driving.

We don’t pass many other cars.

Next services in 156 miles. Next services in 111 miles. Free-roaming cows. Low flying aircraft. These are the signs we see. 14 miles outside the single right turn to enter Rachel, you can see the entire community: you enter the valley from the lip on the north side, and Rachel looks like an afterthought near the other end.

The man behind the counter at the A’Le’Inn Cafe holds my gaze when I ask how he ended up in Rachel. “I set out from Atlanta and meant to stay here just a night. I’ve been here ever since.”

He raises an eyebrow. “I must be part of some CIA conspiracy, right?”

Inside the A’Le’Inn Cafe looking south-ish at the Extraterrestrial Highway.

If you’re in Rachel long-term, you have your own story. You never meant to stay, but here you are. Or you’ve been abducted by aliens. Or you’re part of a CIA conspiracy. The government’s up to something. No one can tell you your story isn’t true. You’ve seen things. Visitors assume you’ve seen things, too, which perpetuates it all.

…or your gas light just came on. That’s what happens to one patron of theA’Le’Inn Cafe while we’re there. There’s no gas station in Rachel. He asks the man behind the counter about his options, and the man shrugs. “The nearest gas station is 47 miles that way,” he says, pointing down the lone road. The man curses, tries to make a phone call. If he’s like the four of us, he doesn’t have cell service. He eventually settles in for a drink.

That’s how it goes. There’s not much out here, save for a lot of stories and theories and a cafe with a well-stocked bar. The man behind the counter knows a number of the patrons by name and welcomes them when they walk in.

The cafe sells maps that show where you can find Area 51. They’re hand-drawn and copied on printer paper. Rudimentary. $0.37. Visitors need it; it’s not like there are road signs telling you how to get there. The locals know, though, as do the government employees who saunter around in imposing white dually trucks.

Many of the government employees look like slightly overweight bros in douchey shirts tucked into their jeans. No Men in Black here. They act like they know more than you do. They probably do.

After this, I took a pano that included a few of the government trucks. I thought about posting it, but [enter your conspiracy theory here].

In the cafe, there’s a flyer next to the door with two pictures of a wrecked car. “Cows and Cars Don’t Mix,” it says. The cows, unrestricted by fences, cross the roads, unbothered by the potential danger. At night, with the 70mph speed limit, wide open spaces, and drivers’ need to get somewhere, the unfortunate cows meet their metallic doom. According to the flyer, they sometimes take drivers along with them.

As if it was foreshadowing, outside of Rachel, we pass a cow that’s laying on the side of the road. It’s unnaturally round. Bloated. “Ready to explode,” Leslie says with a grimace.

What are you going to do with it, though? No people or houses or tow trucks for miles. So you let nature take care of it, I suppose. Or the government. (Allegedly.)

Past the bloated cow, we reach the part of highway 375 just east of Area 51. Twelve miles is the closest you get to this “secret base” unless you take an unmarked dirt road west. The area suddenly looks bucolic. Green. Gentle, rolling hills. These treeless mounds are out of character for the area. As soon as we’re past Area 51, they’re abruptly gone. The more familiar brown, flat landscape takes back the scenery.

We’re disappointed we don’t see the “low flying aircraft” the signs along the highways promise. We have no stories of our own about Area 51; even if we did, we have hours to drive in either direction to have cell service again.

The lack of service is inconvenient for travelers, but convenient for parties that want what happens in Area 51 to stay in Area 51.

The roads and sights become familiar again when we exit the Extraterrestrial Highway and rejoin Highway 93. As the sun sets and we get farther south, the snow-topped mountains become rocky juts of land, and the low sun turns the rocks fiery red and the clouds above them brilliant pink. It’s a wild sunset, quickly overtaken by the dark and stars, though the sprawl of Las Vegas soon glitters in the distance.

Nevada fits the Las Vegas and the Ely and the nowhere. It’s a wild state with countless untold tales, some of them true. While you can get to know Las Vegas well within a weekend, the rest of Nevada only divulges its truths to those who are resilient enough to stay.

Coming Soon: How not to hide from your crush

I have a long, running list, currently at 53 items, of things I want to do. It’s similar to a 40×40 list, or a bucket list, except without a deadline or end number. This list was born after I read an entrepreneur’s post on Facebook about why she was successful: She tries it all, no matter how silly the idea seems. If something doesn’t work, she moves on. But at least she gave it a shot.

With my newfound permission to try and fail — and potentially succeed or discover new joys in life — I started writing down all the ideas I had of stuff I wanted to do. Dorky little things, fun ideas, big hairy goals (BHG), probably impossibles, and completely ambiguous ideas. It doesn’t matter what it is. If I have even a vague interest in something, I put it on the list to check out. Some items have been crossed off because I’ve done them, some because I’ve tried or started and found out that I very much did not want to continue.

On my list is “write real article for blog.” I’ve been wanting to write a new post on here for a while, and I have a few drafts going, but my goal right now is to write something more than just a dear diary entry. I’ve been stumped about the topic, though. The most obvious seemed like it should tie into another item on my list, “something with coffee,” but meh.

This morning, my “real article” item crashed into another item on the list in an epiphany. The other is a BHG, even labeled as such on my list. It’s major, at least for me. For others, it may be ridiculous, and I get made fun of for it (rightfully so), but it’s legit for me and I don’t care who knows it.

“Learn how to hold prolonged eye contact with men I don’t know.”

Clarifications are in order:

  • I mean flirtatious eye contact.
  • When I’m talking to someone, especially in a professional setting, I’m great at eye contact. It’s just the hot guy sitting a few tables away who oh no he just caught me looking at him abort abort abort
  • I need to stop aborting, smile like a normal human being, and move on without blushing like a teenager caught in the act. I’m 35, for pete’s sake.
  • I once literally hid from a crush when we made eye contact from across a large room. He likely thought I fell down.

When I realized that my incredible inability to flirt could be the topic of my “article,” I immediately got on Google. The results for “how to flirt for shy women” include articles that recommend flirting over text (unhelpful), asking for help (unhelpful), and showing “flirty body language.” Flirty body language is about eye contact while talking to him, smiling, and touching him, some of which is a little difficult from across a room. I’m not Stretch Armstrong with a bullhorn.

Then Christopher Hudspeth nails it. “The thing about shy flirters is that they want to make and not make eye contact at the same time.” Chris gets me. But he offers no suggestions for resisting the flight reaction, which means I’m understood, but in no way better off.

A search for “how to make eye contact for shy women” brings up such classics as “How to Make Eye Contact with a Girl (with Pictures)” by wikiHow.

It’s apparent that I’ve been flirting all wrong. The article doesn’t say to shout, “Ahoy, matey!” upon achieving eye contact, but I assume that’s part of it.

Reading on, I get to the section “Overcoming a Fear of Eye Contact.”


I need to do some research, talk to people who aren’t afraid of eyes, and put the recommendations into practice, which apparently makes my recent binge of the original Beverly Hills, 90210 practice. Hello, season-three Brandon.

I’ll report on my findings.

My life as a traveler

I never finished my posts recapping my trip to Nepal. That trip, save for a bout of food poisoning that hit during my 30-plus hours on flights and in airports on the way back to Texas, was incredible. Seeing Everest from a plane was incredible. Becoming friends with the people I met on that trip was incredible. But then I just felt uninspired writing about it. Like writing about it somehow took the trip away from me.

I went to Nepal in December 2015. I went to Taiwan and the Philippines (Boracay, specifically) in October 2016. Then I was in Guanajuato, Mexico, in January; Medellín, Colombia, in February; and Antigua, Guatemala, in March of this year. Thanks to my location-independent job, my trips to Mexico, Colombia, and Guatemala were for the full month each – I worked full-time during those jaunts abroad.

Even with all the travel and adventures, I still had no desire to write. I journaled a little. But no blogging. My domain renewal notice came up, and I let it expire. This blog just sat. Dormant.

I’m going to Peru in September for a much-needed vacation. I’ll share photos on Instagram, as I have with my previous trips; where words have refused to flow, my photos helped me tell the stories.

Everest, Nepal. December 2015

My search history would show you my efforts to figure out if I can work abroad again sometime soon. Paris. London, maybe. Berlin? Or Frankfurt? Tel Aviv looks incredible. As does Dahab, Egypt. And I found out about this place in Tanzania…

That’s when I push my computer away and tilt my head back, eyes closed. This always happens. I start with a potential location – for vacation, to work remotely, to live – and then zoom out of the map little by little to explore more options until entire continents fill the screen and I’m overwhelmed.

The world, and the possibilities within it, is overwhelming.

I tried to quell that feeling of being overwhelmed by places to go by moving to Taiwan in August 2010. This site was born not long after; I’d started a listserv called Mandy’s Pushpins to keep friends and family updated on my life abroad. When that listserv turned out to be a pain to maintain, I bit the bullet and signed up for WordPress. I wrote regularly about my life in Taiwan, the trips I took in the two years I lived abroad, and how I handled coming back two years later on September 1, 2012.

(Spoiler alert: I didn’t handle it well.)

Then this blog became my personal space for feelings, some of which should have stayed in my journal, I’m sure. When I settled in Dallas and tried to join the dating scene there, the name of this site should’ve changed from Mandy Travels to Mandy Dates. Instead it became “Mandy travels… and stuff”.

“Stuff” is a vague word. It’s the kind of word you throw around when you’re not sure what word you actually want. And that signified where I was at the time. I wasn’t sure want I wanted. I’m still not sure what I want.

“Hey, Mandy. What are you doing with your life?”

“Oh, stuff.”

Boracay, the Philippines. November 2016

In order to better shape what I meant by “stuff”, I did what I tend to do when I get antsy: I moved. Thanksgiving of 2015 found me on the road with a U-haul full of the belongings that survived the great cull of 2015. Northern San Diego County, I decided, was where I’d figure out my life. Dating, exploring – LIFE – was going to happen. I was finally going to feel like I had my act together.

The itch started again about six months ago. It’s inescapable, powerful, and not necessarily something I’m happy about. Even my mom, as we talked on the phone Sunday evening, asked if it was coming back. I told her I wasn’t ready to leave, which is true, but that I’d started thinking about it. And, for the first time, that I was torn about moving.

This past Wednesday night I had a very “hippie California” experience, and that’s when everything seemed to become clearer.

I went to see a friend who practices Eastern Medicine. As I rested on the table, we talked about my physical aches, and with my guidance she poked, pinched, and prodded before administering acupuncture needles. My right knee and foot were a mess, which I expected. When she moved to my head without my prompting, I lay quietly. She put one in my left ear.

“What’s that one for?” I asked.

“Anxiety,” she said.

Guanajuato, Mexico. January 2017

The needling itself hurt very little. But randomly I’d really feel a needle. My eyes were closed, but I knew exactly where each needle was, especially when a particular one kind of… pulsed. My body was relaxed, but every few minutes it felt like a charge of some sort coursed through it. Not electricity – more like my body was adjusting and resetting back to how it should be. It was a wave of energy that gently passed as I lay there with a dozen tiny needles sticking out of me.

Lindsey asked how I was, and I told her what I was feeling. It was normal, she assured me. She then stepped out so I could just be. I asked if I could fall asleep, but even with her permission it didn’t happen.

Two minutes after she stepped out, I teared up. No warning, no reason, just tears in my closed eyes that eventually made their way down my cheekbones. I wasn’t sad. At the time, my mind was fairly blank. She let me be there, alone and responsibility-free, for roughly 20 minutes.

When I left, I felt good. Tired. Since I was close and the sunset looked promising, I made my way to my favorite beach, where a wooden set of stairs takes people down to a local surf spot. The tide was up, so onlookers stayed on the stairs, and there were over a dozen people in the water catching the last waves of the day.


The sunset was beautiful, but I was fascinated watching the surfers. They would casually launch into a wave, none of which were larger than a few feet. At the end of their run, each surfer would fall into the water.

What brought me immense joy was how they fell. It wasn’t a graceful hop or dive. Legs splayed, most of the surfers crashed into the ocean on their backs or sides in a full surrender. They’d resurface, violently shake their hair out of their faces, pull themselves back onto their boards, and paddle out to the next wave.

One let out a gleeful, surprised yell as he crashed out. From 100 yards up, I watched and laughed.

Several surfers surfing at sunset. San Diego. July 2017

I realized at that moment that I’d love to be as in-tune with the ocean as those surfers were. But I’m not a surfer. As the night went on, I realized what causes my antsy moves and my near-constant wanderlust.

Most people describe themselves with an -er. Hiker, biker, entrepreneu(e)r, surfer, mother, father, homeowner, volunteer, shopper, skier. Even the non-ers, like wife or husband, still have a way they identify themselves. And where they live needs to fit them.

I struggle with feeling like I fit in. In Dallas I wasn’t a wife or mother, a shopper, or a proud Texan. In Southern California I’m not a surfer or hiker. All I know to use to identify myself is “traveler”. I don’t have many other -ers that feel right. And when a traveler cannot travel, they get antsy. Since I want a home base in the States, that complicated things a bit, too; otherwise I’d hop place to place and be a permanent digital nomad.

There are two key steps to take now. The first is that I need to adapt better. I’m in one of the vacation capitals of the country, and I need to take advantage of that and try everything it has to offer. I might find another -er here. In fact, it’s highly likely I will. But that takes more effort than I’m currently putting forth.

The second step is to be able to afford to travel. That means making hard decisions and committing to some major lifestyle changes. At least, I think it does.

Flying over Los Angeles

As far as this blog goes, I’m not ready to delete it. I considered it multiple times over the last year, but I don’t feel done with it. For a while I thought I wanted to become a travel blogger, and I was going to use this as my launching point. I even contacted Intrepid Travel, the company I used for my trip to Nepal, and let them know I was blogging about my trip. I’m now connected to a couple people from Intrepid on Twitter, but nothing else came of it.

It’s taken time, but I realized I don’t really want to be a travel blogger. Nomadic Matt does a fine job, but a lot of travel blogs are just content for the sake of content (and popularity) (and free, touristy trips). If I see one more faked photo or fluff piece about a place, I will do nothing of consequence, but I’ll be annoyed.

Really, the travel blog “industry” shouldn’t bother me. I think the frustration comes from thinking for years that it was my dream job. When a long-term dream fizzles out, you start to wonder if you’ll ever figure out what you want to do.

I still want to tell stories. Hopefully my stories help someone somehow. I don’t know. But I need to figure out a new name for this site, because “Mandy travels” isn’t my entire life, and “Mandy travels… and stuff” is such lazy copywriting.

I’ll figure it out.

(Now it’s “No time for regrets”. We’ll see if that stays. I kind of miss “Mandy travels” already. The tagline, “Figuring out life by running directly at it”, stays.)

For now, it feels good to have written again. I wasn’t sure I could still do it, to be honest. Cory Richards, a photographer who has worked extensively with National Geographic, puts it well.

I can go months without touching my camera. Most of what I make is garbage. I’m relentlessly hard on myself for not shooting more. I’m often paralyzed by the fear that if I make something, it will suck. I can sit for months in despair without ever making a single image. I’ve struggled the last two years with photography… but occasionally it rises new again in a moment of surrender and I remember why I love this so much. I don’t have to be prolific to be passionate. But I do have to show up.

I need to show up. Find my -ers, find out how I can travel more, find ways to tell more stories, and find the time to write. It’s up to me to make it happen.

Death, life, and wandering in Kathmandu

On the drive to our first destination, Bipin shared snippets of history about Nepal. We all sat in the van, separated into our groups, and listened intently to the story of the royal massacre.

In June 2001, the heir to the Nepalese throne, Prince Dipendra, shot his family members in a drunken rage: his victims included his father, King Birendra. Ten people, including Prince Dipendra, ended up dying, though the official story, and Prince Dipendra’s involvement, is considered controversial.

Over the next few years the nation was fraught with political strife. It descended into chaos, with protests, bombings, necessary peace talks, and the eventual abolition of the monarchy. As recently as September of last year, three months before we sat in the van listening to Bipin, there were protests over the new constitution.

Additionally, beginning in September, a major fuel blockade has severely crippled Nepal. According to some sources, the blockade is India’s way of forcing Nepal to make changes to its new constitution. Others say it’s because of members of lower castes in Nepal.

No matter the cause, Nepal relies on fuel from India. Previously, around 300 fuel trucks would travel from India to Nepal each day. When we were there, 5-10 fuel trucks were making the trip. And as our group traveled from one location to another, we saw long lines of cars, trucks, and commercial vehicles waiting for gas.

Vehicles lined up to get gas. Lines choked traffic, and the vehicles were often abandoned because wait times were so long.

Vehicles lined up to get gas. Lines choked traffic, and the vehicles were often abandoned because wait times were so long.

As the road widened from claustrophobic alleys near the Kathmandu Guest House to wider, manageable streets, we alternated between looking at Bipin as he taught us and catching glimpses of Kathmandu life out the windows.

We passed a tall fence with yellow signs affixed to it. “World Heritage Site” said one. “Pashupati Area Development Trust” was on the other. I was surprised when we turned in.

(Again, I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d read the Trip Notes from Intrepid once more before arriving.)

Megh parked the van, we got out, and I immediately felt like a tourist. As a group of foreigners, we were watched by locals as we slowly walked into the open area of the heritage site. Our large cameras were another giveaway, but I shook off the feeling and started taking pictures of everything I wanted to remember: the nearly dry riverbed, the piles of trash, and the small bonfires burning across the bank from us. Ahead was a complex with a temple. Bipin called us into a circle.


We were at Pashupatinath Temple, a Hindu site dedicated to the god Shiva, and the Bagmati River in front of it would eventually join the Ganges. Elderly men and women from across Nepal and India go to Pashupatinath to die, then be cremated along the river.

The small bonfires I’d noticed were cremations. At this realization, I quickly let my camera fall against my chest. Bipin had asked us earlier to respect the dead and their families and refrain from taking pictures of bodies being cremated.

Pashupatinath Temple

They were wrapped, and the only indication they were the dead was the crying family surrounding the pyre. But the sight jarred me. And the wails from grieving family members got to me.

We continued along the bank, learning more about the site. At one point, across from the main part of the temple, Bipin gave us some time to wander around and take in the area. My first thought was that I needed to just sit.

Bagmati River, Pashupati

I needed to respect what was unfolding across the river. And I needed to let my mind settle after being shocked by the cremations. The shock came from a sudden awareness of my own mortality, and from the sadness emanating from the families.

Photo thanks to Sylvie

Photo thanks to Sylvie

A while later we all congregated to learn more about the Hindu god Shiva and the significance of the small buildings around us.

Photo thanks to Chloe

Photo thanks to Tasha

Bipin gave us ample time to look around, take pictures, and ask questions.

Pashupati man birds

We headed farther up the hill, where there were benches and a good vantage point for the proceedings on the river’s banks and at the temple. We saw some tourists taking video of the cremations.

(“Hey guys! Want to see my awesome vacation video of a buncha people wailing and mourning and cremating their loved ones?” Come on, tourists. Have some respect.)

Looking down the hill toward Pashupatinath Temple

Looking down the hill toward Pashupatinath Temple complex (to the right, gold roof)

We continued up the hill. We foreigners spread out and slowly made our way up the stairs, and Bipin bounded up and down the stairs to answer questions from those farther ahead and those down below.

The Nepalese could probably give Kenyans some stiff competition in marathons.

Pashupatinath treeOver the top of the hill, after passing more religious pagodas and small temples, we met some monkeys, got a great view of more of Kathmandu, and then started down the hill toward the waiting van. Megh had driven to the other side of the site to pick us up.



Our next destination was Boudhanath Stupa, a Buddhist site. The stupa is large and surrounded by connected, multi-storied buildings.

The facade of a building facing the stupa

The facade of a building facing the stupa

It’s being rebuilt, as the earthquakes caused quite a bit of damage, especially to the top.

Boudhanath Stupa

Near the entrance Bipin corralled us for a while to tell us about Boudhanath and its significance, then told us to meet him after we’d had a chance to walk around the stupa.

monks at boudhanath

We all circled the base, then joined Bipin at the Buddhist Thanka Centre: School of Thanka Painting. There we learned about mandalas: their history, the art of painting them, and how they relate to Buddhism.

Mandalas are stacked geometric designs that represent the universe. Boudhanath itself, from above, is a mandala. Most, if not all stupas, are built as mandalas. Traditionally, mandalas are meant to be created, either with paint or sand, with dedication and many hours (thousands, and years if you include all the training) spent in their creation.

However, the purpose of a mandala is to represent that nothing is permanent, and once it has been completed, it’s supposed to be destroyed.

It’s a metaphor for life. And the metaphor, just like the mandalas, is beautiful.


(Color photo here.)

Lunch was on the roof of the restaurant next door to the centre, and several of us enjoyed our first taste of mo mo, the Nepalese version of dumplings. This was our first chance to sit as a group and get to know each other a little better, and Sylvie and I had everyone convinced we’d been friends before the trip because our humor was so similar. During lunch we were entertained by a Buddhist prayer, punctuated by sighs and the speaker clearing his throat, recited over loudspeakers at the stupa.

I asked Bipin if I could return to the centre after lunch so I could buy a mandala. Wendy, Joel, and I went together and talked for a long time with the staff there, and Wendy and I both bought beautiful mandalas, with the proceeds going directly to the school.

men painting mandalas

The others were waiting downstairs when we finished, and we got back into the van. Our afternoon was free, and once we returned to the Kathmandu Guest House, each group went off on their own adventure.

Because of the fuel crisis, many public vehicles allow riders on the roof so more people can ride in fewer vehicles.

Because of the fuel crisis, public transportation allows riders on the roof so more people can ride.

Sylvie and I quickly agreed that we wanted to walk around the area, and we ended up threading through alleys, roads, and dead-ends as we explored.

wandering around Kathmandu

Until dusk we were lost, enjoying getting to know the area and people watching.


“Do we know where we are?” I asked Sylvie.

“Does it matter?” She shrugged and continued walking.

There was graffiti around the city, including this mural

There was graffiti around the city, including this mural

That was the beauty of the afternoon, and of the trip. We were safe and free to get to know Nepal on our own terms. The majority of us were comfortable travelers — respectful of the culture, willing to go outside our comfort zones, and flexible.

Approaching a building heavily damaged by the earthquake

Approaching a building heavily damaged by the earthquake

Over dinner at a restaurant next to the guest house, Sylvie and I got to know each other. I had chicken tikka masala, we shared garlic naan, and we enjoyed a hearty meal for a relatively cheap price. There were a number of other foreigners there, both male and female, some traveling solo.

We made our way back to our room just after dark. Sylvie lay down to read, and I decided to take a “quick nap” before writing in my journal. Curled under the covers and warm, I never made it back out of bed. I barely woke up again before my alarm went off around 5am.

I was joining Wendy, Nick, and Sian the next morning on a flight to see Everest, and we were leaving before the sun would come up.

Nepal: The Cast of Characters

After my shower the next morning, I felt like a new woman. Sylvie and I headed downstairs and went to the small breakfast buffet, where they served Western foods like scrambled eggs, pancakes, and small boxes of cereal. We sat alone, chatting and people watching. The room held 50 people or so, and it was about half full with foreigners dressed in various cold weather gear.

A peephole window on the landing between the fourth and fifth floors of the Kathmandu Guest House

A peephole window between the fourth and fifth floors of the Kathmandu Guest House

Before we left she walked me to different tables and introduced me to some of the others in our group: David and Andrew, two Australians who were probably in their forties, were quietly sitting at one table. Four more Australians sat near them – Wendy, Joel, Julez, and Erin were a group of friends just a bit younger than I am. Sylvie and I were anxious to get in a bit of exploring before I met with Pippin, so we bid farewell to the others and set off.

street near KGH

I walked with a bounce in my step. The sun was shining and the blue sky was a welcome sight, and the temperature was cool, but comfortable. I could feel it – a familiar, slight smile that stayed on my face throughout the morning. My face reacted to the energy I felt – adventures and a new country to explore were laid in front of me, and I felt alive. Awake. All the anxiety from the previous evening had completely dissipated.

We walked to a small, open-air bookstore and spent some time checking out maps of the Kathmandu Valley. I couldn’t buy one until I bested an ATM, but we found a good map that Sylvie bought and I planned to get later.


Continuing on, we retried the ATM from the night before. It refused both Sylvie’s and my cards. We decided to find an actual bank and continued our slow, exploratory walk down the road.

The area of Kathmandu we were in felt completely different in the light. The roads we walked on were rough and lined with multi-storied, low-key buildings that seemed to lean into the narrow streets.

Kathmandu street

On our way back to the Kathmandu Guest House, we found a bank of four ATM machines in a narrow room up a few stairs from the road. Other foreigners were happily pulling cash, and we all chatted as we accessed our accounts and filled our wallets. I withdrew 35,000 Nepalese rupees, which came out to $335 US.

We made it to the hotel lobby with time to spare. I was looking around, trying to spot our tall blond guide, when Sylvie called out to me.

“Mandy, this is Bipin.”

I turned to see a black-haired man who was roughly my age. For a moment I was confused, and then I realized I was an idiot: our guide wasn’t some eternally backpacking Westerner with a curiously cute name from a Broadway musical. He was a local.

(I learned later that Intrepid Travel hires trained travel guides from host countries. Smart.)

He motioned to a couch by the window, and we introduced ourselves. In clear English, like the majority of the Nepalese I’d encountered by that point, he explained what I could expect on the trip. I trusted him immediately and felt a sense of kinship with someone I’d known for five minutes.

Once we’d gone over the details, he smiled and excused himself so he could get ready for the day’s excursion. Others in our group were starting to congregate in the lobby, and Sylvie helped me meet each of them. There were 13 of us in total, including Bipin.

Andrew and David, the two Australians I’d met at breakfast, largely stayed to themselves during the trip. They often wandered off and did their own thing, sometimes skipping meals with the group and eating separately. Bipin was careful to make sure they were included as often as they wanted to be, but for the most part, the remaining 10 of us spent the most time together.

Nepal travel family

Clockwise-ish starting with the standing man in the gray jacket: the manager of the Famous Farm, Sylvie (in orange), Tasha, Chloe, Sian, Nick, Joel (throwing his best Blue Steel pose), Wendy (white scarf), three Famous Farm staff members, Erin (brown pants), Julez, me, and Bipin

Sylvie, my roommate, was a Canadian who lived and worked in Morocco as a teacher. She’s a voracious reader – I think she read six books during our ten-day trip – and casually dignified, with an adventurous spirit and quick wit. I had a lot of fun rooming with her.

The four other Australians I’d met at breakfast consisted of Julez and Joel, siblings of Filipino descent; Erin, Julez’s girlfriend; and Wendy, Julez’s friend. Julez was the most Australian Australian I’ve ever met, and was chill and very comfortable in her own skin. Joel was her younger brother, a naturally bright college (“uni”) student who, despite making duckfaces in his pictures, was always ready to laugh. Erin was a happy blonde who joined the group on her first-ever visit outside of Australia, which she handled with grace. Wendy was a spunky woman with a contagious laugh whose husband, regrettably, stayed home.

The siblings (Joel and Julez) with their selfie sticks. Say what you want about selfie sticks - they came in really handy on this trip.

The siblings (Joel and Julez) with their selfie sticks. Say what you want about selfie sticks – they came in really handy on this trip.

As the group assembled, I also met two New Zealanders, a married couple named Nick and Sian.

“How do you pronounce it? Shawn?”

“No, like ‘Shan’.”

“Wait… how do you spell that?”

Nick and Sian are Intrepid Travel regulars, a very thoughtful, fun couple. He had a camera around his neck like me, and his pictures from the trip are captivating.

I don't remember what they were looking at, but I love how confused they all look.

I don’t remember what they were looking at, but I love how they’re all obviously concentrating on something very important. (Julez, Joel, Erin, Nick)

Soon two Brits, Chloe and Natasha, came into the lobby. They’re friends who act like sisters, and even in their twenties they give off a air of grace and poise. Their proper manners made it all the funnier when Tasha talked smack during games.

Once we’d all arrived, Bipin corralled us into a waiting 13-passenger van. He sat shotgun, with a wide console between him and our quiet, reliable driver, Megh.


During our drives Bipin often turned around and told us stories and jokes. He’d also share the history of Nepal and our destination, sprinkling in personal anecdotes that made the country feel more like a place where people lived, and not just a place where people climbed mountains. On longer drives, when most of the foreigners were sleeping, he’d turn and check on everyone, smiling at those of us who were still awake. A surefooted guide, Bipin quickly became a good friend. He was our teacher and leader, whip-smart like Joel, a skilled photographer like Nick, and witty like Sylvie.

All eleven of us loved to laugh. With Bipin as our guide, over the course of nine days we became a family. And our family was currently loaded into a plain white van and on its way to our first destination: Pashupati.

Nepal van

And then I was in Kathmandu, Nepal

(All the photos in this post are terrible. But who wants to read a long post about travel and not see some pictures? So… sorry.)

I could feel the anxiety rising. After deplaning with a huge smile, I’d spent at least an hour trying to take care of my landing visa. When I was finally released to roam the country, I collected my ugly green suitcase, walked out of the tired airport, and saw the line of taxis. I’d already arranged for a ride to and from the airport, so I waved the taxi offers aside and looked for a driver holding a sign with my name on it.

I really, really wanted to select Pilgrimage.

Can I select Pilgrimage? Please?

I checked a second time to see if a driver had a sign with Intrepid Travel’s name on it.

Why had I been so determined to travel to this country without doing any research? I pulled out my trip notes. We were staying at a guest house in Kathmandu. That’s all I knew. No address. No phone number.

I looked around. It was dark – I couldn’t see stars or the moon, and it felt like the airport was the lone building for miles. More drivers came up to me, offering help in surprisingly good English.

Outside the Tribhuvan International Airport. To the right, taxis. To the left, drivers. Missing: my driver.

Outside the Tribhuvan International Airport. To the right, taxis. To the left, drivers. Missing: my driver.

“Intrepid Travel,” I said to one. The control in my voice was impressive, considering anxiety was coursing through my veins like cocaine. The man I was talking to, who was likely a few years younger than me, nodded.

“Wait. I’ll call your driver.”

I nearly hugged him.

Two men helped me, and 15 minutes later (it felt like longer, but anxiety makes everything feel like eternity) an old sedan pulled up.

“He didn’t think you were coming. So he left,” one of the men explained. I didn’t care. I had a way to get to wherever I was staying for the night. I climbed in the backseat on the right, behind the driver. Nepal follows the UK’s lead on driving rules.

And by that, I mean the side of the road you drive on; otherwise, the drive was similar to other Asian countries. There were scooters and bicycles skirting around slow vehicles, along with pedestrians tempting death, all in a very confined space that echoed with the cacophony of horns.

Or in the middle

Or they drove in the middle. Whatever worked.

A very dark, dusty, tight space.

It didn’t feel like I was in a major city. The dust kicked up and was visible only because of our headlights and those of approaching traffic. I watched the street life as we bounced down roads full of potholes and broken concrete. Each time the driver slowed, I expected to be dropped off at a sagging stoop, where I’d be faced with the reality of my situation.

I was in a third-world country still rebuilding after a series of earthquakes. I was going to spend nine days with people I’d never met touring part of this country. I was probably going to have a hyper-reactive colon and only holes in the ground at my disposal.

KTM street

The car took a couple slow, tight turns, then pulled into the large, walled-in complex of the Kathmandu Guest House.

Apparently it’s famous. I would’ve known that if I’d done my homework.

I was so grateful for the calm, welcoming entrance of the Guest House that I tipped the driver a $10 American bill. For the amount of relief I felt, I would’ve given him my first-born child.

The front desk had my name on their reservations list, and my relief compounded. A man who was smaller and older than me took my suitcase and led me to my room – up four flights of stairs and at the end of the hall. He hoisted my suitcase atop his head as we went up the stairs, and I apologized to him at every landing. With a smile and a laugh, he helped me to my room and left.


Rooms straight ahead, a restaurant on the left, and the lobby and higher-end rooms behind me.

My roommate had claimed one bed, so I sat on the second.

I sat the Traveler’s Sit: there was no more traveling to be done. I was where I needed to be. I was in the right place. Everything was okay.

Two 17-hour layovers, three flights, multiple subway and bus rides, and one ride in a car through Kathmandu doubting my decision to come, and I was happy. Tired, in desperate need of a shower, a little hungry, but happy.

Sylvie came back while I was Sitting. We happily, and somewhat guardedly, introduced ourselves, and she told me about the group. The longer we talked the more comfortable I felt, and I was glad to meet her. I heard her mention that I would meet our guide, Pippin, before the group got together for our first excursion together.

I imagined a peppy, wild-haired, blond Brit. Maybe an Australian. Tall and sinewy and a little off, but fun. I didn’t feel the need to ask how correct my assumption was because I knew I was right.

Sylvie offered to venture out with me in a quest to find an ATM and food, but I told her to relax and keep getting ready for bed. I let her know I would be back soon, quickly checked my reflection, snorted at it, and then I bounded down the stairs and into the chilly night with the joy of Julie Andrews singing in the Austrian hills. The doorman smiled and said namaste, and I felt like a Disney princess.

KTM street 2

–The cash-less princess. A few blocks away from the hotel I found an ATM. This machine, standing in a tiny room that was littered with hundreds of discarded receipts, snubbed me. It took a few tries for it to acknowledge my card. I started talking trash, and it finally accepted it, so I cockily punched in my PIN… only to have the machine, like a bouncer, kick me out of the transaction. My PIN was too long. I’d changed it to seven digits after my card number had been compromised, and it had never occurred to me that that could be a problem outside of the States.

GoPro 60

It didn’t matter. I planned to talk to Pippin the next morning and figure out how to get money then. When I got back to the room, I told Sylvie what happened, and we decided to head out early the next morning to eat breakfast, walk around, and get cash.

My meeting with Pippin was at 9:30, and our group was scheduled to meet at 10am. We were going to hit the ground running.

A night (and morning) in Dubai, UAE

For 40 minutes, I stood in a line 20-people deep at immigration behind a guy I assumed was an extreme sports athlete. The officer we’d lined up for was ignoring our line and was helping his neighboring officer take care of his. It was curious, but no one got annoyed. We all waited patiently for the 30-second interaction.

Nitin and I finally met at about 10pm and walked out to his car. For the next several hours he drove me all around Dubai, taking me to the mall at the base of the Burj Khalifa, then the Palm Jumeirah, the Burj Al Arab, and many places in between. I stood in awe of Dubai’s three separate skylines, walked the foyers of incredible hotels, and explored Bastakiya and the southern shore of Dubai Creek.

burj khalifa

We started at the Dubai Mall, which touts itself as the largest in the world. It reminded me of a more civilized Vegas Strip, but with all the pomp and grandeur. But on a much grander scale.

mall of dubai

Nitin lead me through the mall to the Fountain for the last show of the night. We perched on the Souk Al Bahar Bridge, the Burj Khalifa towering over us, and the Address Hotel, which recently made headlines for catching fire, at our backs.

burj khalifa

I held my GoPro up to record the show. It’s on the 24-acre Burj Lake (burj means tower) and shoots water up to 450 feet. While the Bellagio in Vegas shoots water ten feet higher, this fountain is the world’s largest, and it was beautiful. It was set to Aa Bali Habibi, and one of my favorite parts was listening to the water rocket out of the jets. It made a kind of popping sound, and I smiled the entire time.

I smiled until I realized I didn’t actually record the show. Oops.

After the show ended, we walked back through the mall, and returned to his car. Nitin explained the real estate crisis that has hindered the city: Dubai has a history of great intentions, starting incredible projects and real-estate ventures, and then abandoning them. Much of the issue is because of the influx of foreigners who buy property, or fall into debt another way, and then flee the strict courts of the UAE. In this country, you don’t just declare bankruptcy and hope for the best. If you have debt, they intend to collect.

The vast majority—around 90%—of Dubai’s population is made of foreigners, and they’re largely responsible for Dubai’s explosive growth, and then its near bankruptcy a few years ago. Of course, Dubai’s government isn’t short of blame, and has a history of financial problems.

The Burj Khalifa, for example, is named after the ruler of Abu Dhabi and president of the UAE (the same man). It was originally named Burj Dubai, but after Abu Dhabi and the UAE governments lent Dubai money to pay its debts (tens of billions USD), Dubai figured it’d be a good idea to name the world’s tallest building after the man in charge.

At one point, Nitin and I stood at an overlook and took in the view of the Burj Khalifa and its surrounding skyscrapers. He asked if I wanted to pull out my tripod, which was in my suitcase in the trunk.

“Nah. I don’t want to deal with it.”

And that’s why most of my night pictures from Dubai are terrible.

Dubai skyline

The night continued on, our conversation largely about the country and its history. At 2am, after he drove me around the Palm Jumeirah, we went to a small restaurant in the Jumeirah Marina and ate a delicious Mediterranean food: foul masri, zaatar manakeesh, and falafels.

I know what we ate because I made Nitin type it out: After we sat down, I looked at the menu, but basically told him to order away. It’s a habit I have with friends I visit in foreign countries, and it’s only been dicey once, when I ended up eating a boiled chicken testicle back in 2010.

Walking back to the car, we came upon a snowman on the beach. Naturally, I had to take a picture with it.

snowman selfie

We drove past the Burj Al Arab, which seemed like it was in the middle of nowhere. I found out later that morning that it’s actually in the middle of everything, but I was so turned around that night that I was grateful for Nitin’s knowledge of the city.

A couple of hours before dawn, Nitin suddenly pulled to the side of the road.

“If we leave now, we can go to Abu Dhabi to see the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque,” he said. “We wouldn’t have much time there, but we could do it.”

I’d asked him months before if going to the Grand Mosque was a possibility. It’s the largest mosque in the country and can hold 40,000 people. Marble, gold, semi-precious stones, crystals, mother of pearl, and ceramics are the primary building materials, and after Nitin showed me pictures months ago, I really wanted to go.

We sat in his car.

“I’m awake now, but I’m worried about the drive back. What if we get tired? I mean, I could drive us back if you needed to sleep, but what if we hit traffic?”

Nitin smirked. “I don’t think there will be much traffic.” He had a point. It was about 4am.

I thought about it for a while, then made an executive decision. We stayed in Dubai. The spontaneous side of me was disappointed, and I was worried I’d regret my choice.

“I’ll just have to come back to see it,” I said, trying to make myself feel better.

We headed to Dubai Creek and Bastakiya and wandered around an older part of the city.

dubai creek

It was here, walking along the creek and watching the sky slowly lighten, that made me feel more at home in the tall city of excess.

Dubai edited-22

I saw the Al Fahidi Fort (the oldest building in Dubai).

dubai fort

Nitin led me down sleepy streets where mosques stand sentinel among blocky buildings.

Dubai edited-20

At one point we were in a tight walkway full of worshippers going to a temple nearby.

Dubai alley

Our parking expired at 8am, so we got back in the car and drove to the Burj Al Arab.

In the daylight the city looked completely different, and I could see the three skylines and where everything was in relation to one another. A city that felt like it was sprawling and disconnected was actually pretty easy to navigate.

Dubai edited-6

And there were mosques, some of them identical, as often as there are 7-Elevens in Taiwan or gas stations in a suburb in the US.

another mosque

We walked around the Souk Madinat, a nice, open-air shopping area in the shadow of the Burj Al Arab (souk means market). Nothing was open, and it was quiet, with only Nitin and me wandering around and a few workers setting up for the day. And I completely forgot to take pictures until we were in the car heading back toward the Burj Khalifa.

So I took one with my iPhone as we drove away.

burj al arab

Nitin was on the phone with his friend Amit, and we planned to pick him and his wife Abigail up and go to breakfast. We headed back to the skyline featuring the Burj Khalifa.

driving back to the city

Having never met me, Amit and Abigail had offered me a place to sleep, shower, and eat if I’d needed it during my layover. I was astonished by their hospitality. So when we stopped to pick them up, I was happy to meet them.

The conversation with Nitin never stopped throughout the night. We’re polar opposites in a number of ways, but we enjoyed talking. When Amit and Abigail climbed in the car, the conversation cranked up and we all laughed and talked nonstop. It felt like the four of us had been friends for a long time.

Three Indians and one American went to an authentic Indian breakfast food restaurant in a low-key area of Dubai. We talked photography. Amit educated me on the difference between heat and spicy. I tried pani puri and a few other dishes for the first time. It was a cheerful breakfast.

Nitin, Amit, and Abigail made me sad to leave Dubai, and happy we didn’t go to Abu Dhabi—I never would’ve met the others if we had.

The three of them had a quick discussion, and the four of us ended up going to a subway station, clean and shiny like the rest of downtown, and riding to a souk near Dubai Creek, where Nitin and I saw the sunrise. It was warm enough to wear our short-sleeved shirts, and the sun was getting stronger.

Dubai mosque detail

As I trailed the others through one alley in the souk, the vendors tried to get our attention and sell us various spices and wares. We passed one vendor with a shop on the right, and he looked at me.

“Oh, my GOD,” I heard him say. His tone was a mix of shock and disgust.

Curious, I asked the others about his reaction in the next open area.

“It’s your tattoo. And the fact that I have long hair,” Amit explained, shrugging his shoulders.

“Does that mean we’re rebellious?” I asked excitedly. He snorted. I’d actually expected a bigger negative response to my visible tattoo, but no one else seemed to care.

I needed to be at the airport two hours before my flight, so we made our way back to the subway, returned to the car, and Nitin drove us to my terminal. I realized I was disappointed my time in Dubai was over. I hugged Nitin and Abigail, and Amit walked me in to show me where to go; before he left, he gave me a bear hug, too.

I stood in line to check in and had a brief rush of emotion. A familiar feeling of anxiety, which I get before every flight, passed over me. I didn’t want to leave the comfort of where I was. I had friends here. I was comfortable here. And Nepal was a scary unknown.

The feeling passed, as it does. My gate was in a crowded area of the terminal, and I sat down. I had a few minutes to charge my phone, message my family and Nitin, and go to the restroom. The gate next to mine was full of men and women dressed all in white, and I couldn’t figure out where they were going or why they were dressed that way.


Then we got on a bus, rode it to the plane, and then climbed stairs to board. I met a woman from the UK who was going to Nepal to backpack with her husband, and saw a number of other backpackers.

The funny thing about traveling to Nepal is that you know the foreigners aren’t going for luxury. They’re dressed in hiking gear, and most of us expected to go without showers for days. I’d never been surrounded by so many low-key, adventurous people.

Once I was settled in my seat I pulled out my journal and began writing all the details of my trip so far. I planned to write every day so I didn’t forget anything, and on the flight, save for the 45 minutes I slept once the sun went down, I filled several pages. I started with my time in DC and interjected with thoughts I had during the flight.

flight path

That would be the last time I seriously wrote in my journal on the trip. Nepal proved to be too exciting, too full of conversations, hiking, coloring, impromptu soccer games, carom board, fireside chats, and games to spend time journaling.

I don’t regret it. I may not remember every detail. But it was worth it.

The joys of traveling with luggage: Washington, DC

My red-eye flight from San Diego landed at Dulles, which is miles west of Washington, DC, two hours before sunrise. I’d hoped to take a nap on the plane, but I’d managed to book a flight on the most uncomfortable plane known to man.

When I’d checked in for my flight, I learned I couldn’t check my suitcase through to Dubai. I also found out there wasn’t a place to store my bag in DC, so I was going to be stubborn and roll it around all day. Then, before I boarded, Caitlin told me it was raining.

I started my trip with no sleep, a rolling suitcase, and rain at my destination.

For $5 I took a bus from Dulles 6.3 miles to the start of the metro. There I bought a day pass for about $16, rolled my ugly green suitcase down to the platform, and waited with a growing crowd of people going to work. I was meeting Caitlin at the Metro Center station in the heart of DC, and then we’d ride up to where she was staying to drop off my suitcase and backpack. Unencumbered by luggage, we’d be ready to tackle the day.

My suitcase made me resort to Plan B in both of my layovers. And that broken, spray-painted, decade-old ripped canvas box on wheels, which has gone around the world with me more than once and never gotten lost, helped ensure my time in DC and Dubai went better than planned.

Travel is all about Plan B.

At Caitlin’s I donned my waterproof jacket, water-resistant travel purse, very non-waterproof jeans, and sponge-like running shoes, and then we were off for a full day of DC tourism.

We ate a surprisingly filling breakfast at Busboys and Poets, where I had a Thin Mint Latte (organic mint syrup, chocolate, steamed milk, espresso). I hoped the caffeine would keep me from falling asleep on the metro. And while I’m not a coffee drinker, I drank it happily: syrupy, chocolatey, milky coffee is delicious.

After breakfast we took the metro down to DC proper. Outside of downtown, DC’s full of bright, large graffiti, especially along the metro tracks. Outside of sterile, stuffy downtown, DC has a pretty cool personality.

We emerged from the metro station and re-entered the cold and wet. A ten-minute walk later and we were at the Newseum. This is a museum all about the news, and it has exhibits on some of the biggest news stories in recent memory. It also highlights the dangers facing journalists and photojournalists around the world.

Caitlin had been before, and we didn’t have much time, so she laid out our quick morning visit. We started in the Pulitzer Prize exhibit, which showcased photographs dating all the way back to 1942. I was familiar with many of them, and as we rounded the curved walls of the exhibit and looked at the photos, we alternately pointed at ones we recognized and others that caught our attention.

Newseum quote

There was one photo, for me, that was particularly chilling. It was taken during the Thammasat University Massacre, and I found it horrifying.

We left the exhibit in the midst of a crowd of schoolchildren. They were being remarkably respectful given the nature of some of the photos, but Cait and I were ready to escape the images.

Next we visited a section of the Berlin Wall—the largest outside of Germany—accompanied by a watch tower. On the free side was colorful graffiti; on the other, with the watch tower, a plain, intimidating concrete barrier.

Berlin Wall Newseum

Up two flights of stairs and we were standing in the shadow of a mangled radio tower from one of the felled World Trade Center towers from New York City. One wall was lined with front pages from newspapers around the world after the attacks.

9/11 exhibit Newseum

After several minutes I needed another break, and Cait was emotionally tapped, too. We took our time circling the museum on our way to the last exhibit we wanted to see. A large, stylized world map covered a wall and showed how much freedom the press had in other countries. Accompanying it were glass cases with artifacts from journalists and photojournalists who disappeared or died while on assignment.

From there we walked into an empty, bright room, tall and lit with natural light. Straight ahead was a wall lined with long slats holding row after row of photos. Each photo was of a man or woman who died while reporting the news. At the top were several empty rows waiting to be filled with more photos.

deaths Newseum

To the left of the photos was a wall of large plaques engraved with the names of people in the photos, plus others. This wall, too, had space for additional names. Both were regularly updated. Tim Hetherington, a brilliant photojournalist I met in 2009 at a screening of Restrepo, was memorialized in this room. There were others I recognized, too.

I was done. Caitlin seemed to be, too. We decided to head downstairs and make our way down the street to a great Indian fast food place that was cheap and warm.

After lunch it was time to brave the rain and walk along the Mall. When we found ourselves in the center of the Mall between the Capitol and the Washington Monument, I surveyed the area.


“Is it how you pictured it?” Caitlin asked.

“No. It’s… small? I thought it would be more impressive.”

Washington Monument

We approached the Washington Monument, which felt like it was plopped in the middle of an intersection.

Washington Monument tree

It was when we were close—at the base of the monument—that I began to feel more inspired by the Mall.

Washington Monument flag

We could see the Reflecting Pool, a memorial I didn’t know, and the Lincoln Memorial at the far end. The park rangers stationed at the Monument convinced us to get free tickets to go to the top at 4pm. We had two hours to explore before going up.

Washington Monument big

The memorial we saw that I didn’t recognize was the National WWII Memorial, and we walked toward it from the Monument.

National WWII Memorial selfie

It’s beautiful, even when it’s gloomy and raining.

National WWII Memorial

The Reflecting Pool behind it was long and green, littered with coins. I stuck my GoPro into the water to try to get an interesting shot of either the coins or the passing ducks. Not only were the pictures mediocre, DC security must’ve thought I was a massive idiot.

Reflecting Pool coins

When you walk up to the Lincoln Memorial, you start to realize its size. As you get closer, you expect it to get larger, but it’s only once you’re at the end of the Pool and at the base of the steps that you really see it. It looks like it’s right against the Pool, but it’s not. You still have a number of steps and wide landings to summit.

Lincoln Memorial outside

It’s big. And in the rain, the ground mirrors the Memorial and its surroundings, though it’s not slick. Then, once you step between the columns and under the roof, President Lincoln is also large, but dwarfed by the cavernous room where he sits.

Lincoln Memorial inside

By this point Cait and I were wet from the waist down, our shoes soaked. We stood under the overhang, looking out toward the Monument. There were so many sights we hadn’t seen, and I definitely wanted to see the White House before I left. But I needed time to dry my jeans and change shoes before checking in for my flight to Dubai.

Lincoln Memorial MLK

Setting back out in the rain, we decided to skip going to the top of the Washington Monument. We visited the Vietnam Memorial, a solemn, quiet place—save for the loud Chinese tour guide behind us.

Vietnam Memorial

Then we trudged another mile to the White House. It was when we stood in front of the White House that the rain began to let up. In fact, as we walked around to the other side of the House, the rain stopped.

Just in time for us to finish touring the city and get back on the metro.

White House

This picture is an anal-retentive person’s nightmare. The fountain silhouettes beautifully in the embellished part of the gate on the right. No one was standing in my way. It would’ve made a much better picture. But I didn’t care. And I rather like this off-kilter version.

DC was a great time, even with rain, no sleep, and sore feet. It had been a long, tiring day, and after drying up and taking a ten-minute power nap at Caitlin’s, I was en route to the airport.

Gratefully, on my flight to Dubai, I sat next to a cool girl from Toronto. She and I both slept almost the entirety of the flight, and apparently I didn’t wake her up the two times I kicked her in my sleep. I woke myself up with my leg spasms. It’s a miracle she didn’t feel anything.

The next time I was on land, 13 hours later, it was on the other side of the planet in the United Arab Emirates. It was 8pm, 12 hours later than San Diego, and I was going to stay up all night seeing the city with my friend Nitin.

Salvation Mountain, California. AKA The Will-I-Ever-Get-There Roadtrip

Salvation Mountain is an art project started by Leonard Knight that’s roughly 35 years old. The version that exists today is the second iteration, after the first crumbled, and is now maintained by volunteers since Knight passed away in early 2014.

You don’t need to know anything about Knight, or even about the mountain, before you go. Because no matter how much you’ve prepared for it, once you show up all you can really do is say, “Huh.”


An iPhone pano of much of the site, featuring my shadow

I drove several hours to and from Slab City, a makeshift, tiny community that exists because people say it does. It’s just north of Niland, California, off Beal Road. There are RVs and other mobile homesteads that make up the area, which was originally the location for the WWII Marine barracks of Camp Dunlap. At least, that’s what Wikipedia says.

Slab City

Slab City, as seen from the top of the mountain

This area is roughly 180 feet below sea level. It’s just east of the Salton Sea, which is even lower. Driving out there, especially solo, makes you wonder if you’ve lost your mind. You feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere, and you kind of are. You drive up 111, desperately scanning the area for this three-story-high supposed mountain, and feeling like you’re never going to get there.

When you finally start seeing other vehicles that are obviously not local, you start to feel better. You follow them as you turn onto Main Street/Beal Street, go through a humble “neighborhood”, and pass the slightly creepy, dilapidated, graffitied, Romanesque, abandoned building on one corner.

That building needs all those adjectives. I didn’t get a picture, but I should’ve. It was something.

Soon you go over a tiny bridge and pass a concrete stand on the right side of the road that looks like a great place to cook meth. But painted boldly on the side facing you is “Slab City. The last free place. Almost there!”

the shack

I considered parking there because I assumed “the last free place” meant for parking. I lived in Dallas too long.

the road

Continue past the welcome shack and around the bend

Around the bend, you see it. And you cock your head to the side and go, “Huh.”


They make it obvious where to turn in

Salvation Mountain isn’t imposing. When I first got there, I didn’t think much of it. Then I started to explore, and soon I felt good about coming. And not because I’m a Christian in a place that has “GOD IS LOVE” painted as high as I am tall – because, honestly, much of Knight’s Christian message is fire and brimstone. Which isn’t really my thing.

the mountain

The mountain and one of the painted vehicles

But for some reason, this pious place brings people together no matter what they believe. I parked, pulled out my camera, and locked my car, with the rest of my gear and my purse fully visible inside. I was safe, surrounded by people who were there because they wanted to be there. I felt a sense of community.

It’s weird.

I wandered around taking pictures, venturing into the two biggest side projects: awkwardly roofed rooms off to the right of the mountain.

side thing

The larger of the two side projects. Once you walk in it’s expansive, with little rooms and the trippiest ceiling ever. “Ceiling”.

Pictures boggle your mind a bit, even if you were the one who took them.


There are also painted vehicles, a simply painted boat, and the creepiest swing on the planet in the parking lot.


As for the mountain itself, there are a number of signs asking people not to climb; there is, however, a “yellow-brick road”, as signs call it, that leads visitors to the top.

road sign

You get to the top, by the cross, and you turn to look around. And the thought that comes to mind is, “Huh.”

It’s not an arduous climb. You don’t have some kind of incredible view at the summit. You see the sliver of the large Salton Sea. You see the humble mountains. The sky is pretty, but you’re staring directly into the sunset. It’s not really anything special.

The view from the top of the mountain. That's apparently the Sea of Galilee, and you can see five vehicles. And a boat.

The view from the top. That’s apparently the Sea of Galilee, and you can see five vehicles. And a boat.

But still, you kind of want to just hang out there for a minute and take it in.

So I sat. I didn’t have any deep thoughts. I didn’t feel closer to God. But I was content.

A few minutes later, I stood and went behind the cross. I saw Slab City at my 11 o’clock, and the two squat abandoned water tanks, embellished with their own art, at my 2 o’clock.


Abandoned water tanks, now artists’ playgrounds

I considered walking to the tanks for a closer look, and if I go back, I will. They were only a quarter-of-a-mile away, give or take, but I was thinking of the 3ish-hour drive back to San Diego. I didn’t want to get on the road too late.

If you enjoy kooky art projects and road trips to the middle of nowhere, go. If you’re a hippie, go. If you’re a photographer, go – there were lots of us there. It’s a unique experience, to say the least.

the mountain

One part says JESUS in giant, baby pink letters and then, underneath, in bright red, FIRE. JESUS FIRE.

How to Move from Dallas to San Diego in 48 Easy Steps

  1. Move.
  2. Drop off empty trailer at U-Haul and marvel at how much lighter and faster your SUV feels.
  3. Giggle and clap while driving to get fish tacos.
  4. Laugh when the sweet kid at the counter apologizes for the bad, rainy weather.
  5. Put phone on vibrate so Jennifer, my new roommate and old friend from high school, doesn’t get annoyed at all the texts.
  6. Love my friends and family for blowing up my phone.
  7. Use the word “weird” as often as possible when describing how it feels to be in California.
  8. Eat fish tacos.
  9. Love fish tacos.
  10. Consider having them for dinner every night.
  11. Put together bed.
  12. Put memory foam mattress topper on bed.
  13. Make bed.
  14. Get really, really excited about bed.
  15. Lay in bed, answer texts and Facebook messages.
  16. Miss everyone. A lot.
  17. Sleep.
  18. Wake up parched with dry mouth.
  19. Drink water.
  20. Fall back asleep.
  21. Wake up.
  22. Unpack.
  23. Feel a bit more at home.
  24. Decide last minute to drive to the coast for the sunset.
  25. Witness beautiful sunset.
  26. Celebrate by driving with the windows down.
  27. Sing along to Kiss the Girl from The Little Mermaid.
  28. Make a u-turn.
  29. Realize I was going the right way.
  30. Turn around.
  31. Consider getting fish tacos for dinner.
  32. Return to apartment.
  33. Go to bed early.
  34. Sleep like the dead.
  35. Wake up feeling like I got hit by a truck.
  36. Unpack.
  37. Decide to buy a map.
  38. Drive to Barnes & Noble, which is five minutes away.
  39. Buy map after long search for the right one.
  40. Continue driving for over an hour.
  41. Get lost in a hilly area full of nice homes.
  42. See three or four hot-air balloons.
  43. Go blind from the sun.
  44. Feel very far away from friends and family.
  45. Return to apartment.
  46. The apartment where I live now.
  47. The apartment in San Diego where I live.
  48. WHOA.