My A to Z Travels: Recollections of a Nomad

I decided to borrow this interesting tidbit from the excellent Morning Fresh blog, run by my good friend and fellow Lazy Lizarder, Katie Boue. It’s a chance to look back at my travels from the very start: The exciting moments, the scary, and the downright bizarre. Welcome to my life.

A: Age you went on your first international trip.

My first international trip was almost immediately, as I flew to Italy with my sister, mother, and father to get to meet my family in Florence, spend my summers on the rocky coast of Castiglioncello, which became the defining destination of my life, and embrace friends, and a culture which will forever reside with me.

B: Best (foreign) beer you’ve had and where.

The appropriately named Everest beer in Nepal. It was a crisp, amber-colored lager that was ubiquitous at the end of every climb, trek, or lodge that we resided in. Of course I’ve had some truly excellent European beers, but the memories I associate with my friends, sitting inside a warm restaurant on a cold Nepali night, eating buffalo steaks and toasting the completion of a long trail, makes it truly exceptional.

C: Cuisine (favorite)

There is just no competition, no equal, and nothing that even comes close to the true country cuisine of my summers in Italy. In Tuscany, simplicity is the key. Bright red tomatoes fill every vine, aromatic basil rules the herb garden, and it’s all paired with gleaming white, soft Parmigiano Reggiano, sitting in gigantic wheels behind every shop window. For an authentic Tuscan experience, one must not look farther than Il Latini restaurant in Florence. Set in the center of the city, Il Latini upholds the traditional Tuscan style of cooking under a roaring wood oven flame. Juicy Florentine steaks are prepared simply garnished with salt, rosemary, and gleaming bright green olive oil, a Tuscan staple. Fresh red loaves of salami, and pink, thin, slices of prosciutto hang above the kitchen, dried and cured to perfection. A boars head, freshly delivered, sits in view of the diners, and thick slices of the succulent meat are delivered upon request. White Cannellini beans, drizzled with golden olive oil and lightly salted make the perfect side dish alongside crimson red Chianti, all locally made, served in their traditional wicker basket bottles. My family believes in simple cuisine and we hold that tradition even in our own home.

Traditional Tuscan dinner in Florence, Italy

D: Destinations, favorite, least favorite, and why.

My favorite destination is the little hamlet town of Castiglioncello, Italy, a place that has come to remain close to my heart. Set alongside the dramatic rocky Tuscan coast, it is a favorite summer holiday retreat for many from every corner of the country. The true beauty however, is finding the same friends year after year, some that I have known since childhood, and having a place become so familiar that it literally becomes a second home. During the day we spend our hours on the sandy shores of Quercetano, swimming in the pristine azure Mediterranean, consistently named some of the most pure waters in Italy, diving off the cliffs and rocks, and endless matches of beach football and volleyball. By night the town comes alive with gossip and conversations in the piazza, the town square, over heaps of creamy gelato, before heading to the summer beach parties, filled with people, music, and dancing. It is nearly impossible not to enjoy myself while traveling, but I arrived at the tiny two building village of Lobuche when I was trekking to Everest, nursing a raging altitude induced headache, sore feet, and cold weather. It snowed hard and the shack of a room I was staying the night in was everything except welcoming.

Castiglioncello, Italy

E: Event you experienced abroad that made you say “wow”.

Standing at 10,531 feet at the summit of Poon Hill watching the sun rise over Annapurna with my volunteer crew after a night of heavy snowfall. We had tried to set out the day before but were held back by an increasing amount of ice in the tiny town of Ghorepani, so we spent the majority of our day playing cards, drinking hot chocolate, and building snowmen. The next morning, under predawn skies, we trudged our way through knee-deep snow to reach the fluttering colorful prayer flags in the morning breeze. As the sun rose we were rewarded with an awe inspiring view of Annapurna I and II, and the sharply twin pointed Machapuchare, or fishtail mountain.

Annapurna seen from the summit of Poon Hill

F: Favorite mode of transportation.

My favorite mode of transportation was either by elephant’s back, or the weekly commute we volunteers made on the roof of the bus to reach the center of town. Riding through the thick Chitwan jungles in search of one horned rhino, or the rare Indian tiger, we feel every bump as we sit perched on the leathery skin. I was fortunate to partake in the elephant’s bath-time, where I sat barebacked as the gentle creature marched towards the river, dipped its trunk into the muddy water, and sprayed us with generous coatings of mud, water, and elephant snot. Less intense but equally as dirty were the dusty rides on the roofs of buses as we made our way towards the internet cafes and decent meals of the main town. We sat atop the small roof, usually with twelve or fifteen other people, playing chicken with the tree branches and low hanging power lines, while playing a virtual chess game with sacks of spices and produce, and the occasional roof-bound goat.

Elephant Bath time in Chitwan, Nepal

G. Greatest feeling while traveling.

Traveling is an emotional experience, from re-finding old friends in Italy, to the connection I made with my orphans in Pokhara, and the heartbreak when I had to leave them. But my greatest feeling while traveling is simply the step into the unknown. Flying into Singapore, even if it was only a layover, was officially the farthest i’d ever been from home, and my first time on the other side of the world. I remember the feeling of excitement and isolation, how I felt it wasn’t a dream anymore, I wouldn’t see this place for six months when I was on my way home. Yet home was the other great feeling. The sense of accomplishment after i’ve been somewhere, the reunion with friends and family, and the stories just bursting to be told are what makes my travels worth every moment.

H. Hottest place you’ve traveled to.

Moab, Utah at midday, in the middle of the desert, was an absolute inferno. My climb up Ancient Art Tower with the sun at my back left me with red arms and dry chapped lips all the way up. I wouldn’t expect anything less from the high desert, but the ten minute walk into town from the Lazy Lizard nearly left me crawling.

I: Incredible service you’ve experienced and where.

Flying Singapore Airlines was the most amazing in-flight service i’d ever received. Friendly, well trained, stewardesses, an on demand section of over two hundred movies and television shows at my disposal, a plug under the seat to charge my laptop (in Economy class!) and the biggest, best tasting airline meal i’ve ever had consisting of Japanese style beef, Udon cold noodles, Asian salad, hot green tea, and every passenger was given a half pint of Ben & Jerry’s cookie dough ice cream. It was absolute class.

J: Journey that took the longest.

Miami to Kathmandu was a 33 hour adventure that started with a simple 5 hour flight to Los Angeles, 10 hours to Tokyo, 8 hours to Singapore (I was not expecting that one, I thought it was closer), and 4 hours to Kathmandu including layovers.

K: Keepsake from your travels.

The most important keepsake from my travels is my now iconic canvas bag. First bought in a market in Florence in the summer of 2007, it has been my schoolbag, my carry on travel bag, and has marched with me from Moab to Everest Base Camp. My bag carries the patches of my various climbs and adventures, and bears the broken zippers, scars, and tears that make it truly unique to me.

Mike (and bag) at Namche Bazaar

L: Let-down sight, why and where.

Rafting in Moab. After having white water rafted the Chattanooga River with intense Class IV and Class V rapids in fall of 2010, I was excited to hit the famous Colorado River and it’s high flying rapids. What I did find, other than extraordinary scenery of the towering desert cliffs, were a series of mild, disappointing Class II and Class III rapids that did little to thrill me as much as the middle age mothers who rounded up the rest of my boat crew. I do plan on foraging my way up the river to truly find the famous rapids.

M: Moment where you fell in love with travel.

I first truly fell in love with travel when I rediscovered Italy through a tourist’s eyes. After having been to Italy many times to see family and friends I realized that i’d never truly seen the country as a tourist, and never had been inside the cathedrals, the galleries, or the museums. I joined the Spring In Italy group on three successive occasions in 2006, 2007, and 2008, and under the guidance of excellent professors, such as the well known and well liked Biagio Auricchio, and world renown art historian Noah Charney, I gained a new perspective on a country that I felt I knew so well, and yet knew nothing about. After spending three weeks with the group, I would either reside with relatives in Florence or rent rooms in the city, and take a train to another city each day, led only by my guidebook, my thirst for knowledge, and an empty stomach. Setting my own timetables, I was able to discover hidden parts of the country and truly get a sense of the diversity of each region.

N: Nicest hotel you’ve stayed in.

Although it technically wasn’t a hotel, the nicest room i’ve ever had was my rented loft in Florence. I had a small living room with couch and television, an attached kitchen with a small refrigerator and two burner stove, and a window with a view to die for. A small metal spiral staircase (with a low lying beam which hit me on many a late night) brought me up to my bed platform overlooking the living room. I was only there a month, but it was a month I didn’t want to leave.

O: Obsession-what are you obsessed with taking pictures of while traveling.

I love photography. I love to capture the essence, quirkiness, and individual beauty of a place. My favorite subjects are food and landscapes. Food is always fun to photograph because you can get such a wide palette of textures, colors, and play with light and shade endlessly. A well placed food shot should get the most interesting bits, and give the viewer some sense of taste, such as the overflowing juices of a freshly cut tomato, or the white creamy lines of a newly scooped gelato. Landscapes are more beautiful from high vantage points. I like to capture the receding atmosphere in the distance, but I also like to find interesting frames, such as an archway or a door and turn my subject into a living piece of artwork.

Moon over Moab, Utah

P: Passport stamps. How many and from where.

About six: USA, Italy, Japan, Nepal, France, and Turkey (Even though the European stamps are usually good for the EU as a whole)

Q: Quirkiest attraction you’ve visited and where.

The Moab Rock Shop, a myriad collection of rocks, fossils and (supposedly) live uranium from Moabs famed mines. The shop is run by local celebrity and paleontologist Lin Ottinger, a character of a man with an unmistakable beard, who hawks ancient shark teeth drawn out of the desert hills, dinosaur footprints, and gems and stones of every shape, size, and brilliance. His shop is recognizable by it’s camp, roadside attraction quality decorated by old mining equipment, and tables of stones drying in the sun where he’ll personally show you his Geiger counter and laugh to himself as he demonstrates how radioactive the stones really are.

R: Recommended sight, event, or experience.

From my incredible week out in Utah, to rafting the Chattanooga river, to my wine tour through Chianti, I’d like to lay out an entire bucket list of ideas and adventures that I’d recommend. However the adventure that truly changed me and that I truly advise, is the 14 day trek out to Mt. Everest Base Camp. I went with the excellent and highly recommended Nepal Trailblazer Trekking who handled my trip with extreme professionalism and flexibility. It was just me and my guide, the small but powerful Ram Krishna, as we hiked through the lowland forests, up to the Sherpa capital of Namche Bazaar, through the dusty dry desert like conditions above the tree line, and finally into the icy desolate recesses of the Khumbu Glacier. Staying in simple teahouse lodges along the way, my trip (no more than $1,380) covered my flight into the Everest region, landing at the treacherous Lukla airstrip, lodging, food the entire way, and a final climb up Kala Patthar to see the sunrise over Everest’s icy slopes. It’s a test of mettle, fortitude, mental and physical strength, and one of the world’s great treks.

Tengboche Monastery, Everest Base Camp Trek, Nepal

S: Splurge. Something you have no problem forking over money for while traveling.

Simple. Food. If a place looks interesting, well recommended, or is a fair representation of the place I am in, I will pay for it. It was common for us volunteers to want to escape our home-stays and the ubiquitous Dal Bhat (a mushy mix of rice, lentils, and curried vegetables) and go into town in search of more expensive yet more familiar western fare. Our treks and climbs were celebrated by helpings of buffalo steaks and beers, or the occasional pizza, slightly more expensive, but a great taste of home.

T: Touristy thing you’ve done.

Moving back to Italy during the summers in college turned me into the total tourist, and I loved every moment of it. I threw coins into the Trevi Fountain, took pictures in front of the Colosseum, marveled and let loose the occasional joke at the expense of Michelangelo’s David, and roamed the streets in search of delectable gelato every night. Being a tourist allowed me to fall in love once again with the country, see it as an outsider sees it, and understand a tourist mentality. Although I promote self travel, I don’t shun the guided tours. In fact I wholeheartedly encourage it. Having an experienced and trustworthy guide helps delve deeper into a city’s history and culture. Having an open mind, the way that the tour groups do, will make for a much more informative and enjoyable journey.

U: Unforgettable travel memory.

Again this question is nearly impossible to answer. Travel, adventure, and discovery brings out memories and emotions that are indescribable. One of my favorite memories is climbing up the side of a 2,000 year old Roman aqueduct in Istanbul, Turkey. It was sunset over the city. My friend Alex and I had hiked our way over from the Galata tower on the Asian side of the city and made our way towards the aqueduct that bisected it’s way through the middle of the urban landscape. Two streets passed under it’s massive stone arches with congested rush hour traffic, and we wanted so desperately to stand atop it. From the ground we could see people walking along it’s passageway up top and were determined to find the entrance. With good tracking and a disputed sense of the “legality” of the situation, we located the part of the tower that dipped down to it’s lowest point. The aqueduct was divided into two sections, one a five foot wall, the second wall to the roof was about seven or eight feet. We scrambled up the first wall, well before my climbing days, but I got up on my own. The second wall required me to lift Alex, in better physical shape then me, to the ledge, and then jump and hope that he would clasp me before I fell into the rubble below. I cupped my hands and lifted my friend onto the second ledge where he easily pulled himself up. I could barely see him from below, so my hope was to climb up, grab the smooth ledge and hope that he grabbed my arm first. On a count of three I scaled the short three feet and grabbed the lip, feeling no support I began to panic and saw the rubble below, and at the last possible moment I felt the rough grasp on my hand and the tug to pull myself over the lip and onto the roof of the aqueduct. Walking across the lower part of the aqueduct we had to climb a small flight of stairs to the top, and walking across a platform, only four to five feet wide, the entire city, the central hub of the Eastern Roman Empire for centuries spread before us. As cars sped under the arches, the minarets shone in the afternoon twilight, the unmistakable rounded domes of Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque contrasted each other in the city where East meets West and Christianity and Islam coexist in perfect harmony. The aqueduct was completely unrestored or unfurnished, and one took a risk when standing on top with holes poking through where we could see the street below. At the end of our short walk across the top, we encountered a construction crew on the opposite end that offered us a ladder, and safe passage to the street below. I don’t usually promote the less than legal ways of seeing a city, but in this case it was anything but unwanted and one of my most cherished memories.

Standing atop the aqueduct, Istanbul, Turkey

V: Visas, how many and for where.

Two, one for Nepal and one for Italy.

W: Wine, best glass of wine while traveling, and where.

I had decided to make my way towards the little hilltop town of Cortona, made famous by Frances Mayes’ bestseller Under the Tuscan Sun. Arriving at the train station which is situated about three kilometers at the base of the hill, I saw no means of transportation to the main town. So I decided to hike. Cars and scooters tauntingly whizzed by me and I made my way up a winding road to the town square. Running out of water about midway through, I trudged my way past a gorgeous fifth century church overlooking the valley far below, and upon arriving in the town square, parched, out of breath, and with shaking legs, the first sight that beheld me – was the official bus going back to the train station to pick up newly arriving passengers. Laughing to myself at the sheer incredibility of the situation, I walked the tiny streets and alleyways until I came upon La Osteria del Teatro, a small restaurant with little tables set right into the street. It was about five in the afternoon, and I sat in a table for one overlooking the locals partaking in their afternoon passeggiate, or pre-dinner walk. I asked the waiter for a glass of the local red, so far I hadn’t gone wrong in any place i’d been to, and a plate of crostini con salsiccia e fontina, toasted, sliced pieces of bread with spicy sausage in a creamy fontina cheese base drizzled with the ever present sweet olive oil. The wine was not overly fruity, slightly spicy and dry as most Tuscan wines are, and although I fail to recall the name of the wine, its location, that view, and that moment made it truly extraordinary. With my fill of crostini and feeling oh so slightly tipsy, I sat, read, smiled, and watched the world pass me by.

X: eXcellent view and from where.

I’ve already posted about my climb up Ancient Art in the Moab desert. I had to battle the chimney pitch and the subsequent overhang, and I arrived at the top with bleeding fingers and a sense of accomplishment. The view that greeted me from 450 feet up was my next objective, Castleton Tower, looming in the distance and Monument Valley spread beneath my feet. I watched a hawk nest itself in the red sandstone towers and had a commanding view on the gully below.

Y: Years spent traveling.

I’ve been traveling for all 25 years of my life. My parents instilled a recognition of my Italian heritage to hold on to and to explore. They pushed me to go volunteer, they’ve supported my climbing, and they supported the three years I spent rediscovering Italy, as well as ensuring that we were exposed to Europe as much as possible.

Z: Zealous sports fans and where.

Being in Italy in 2006 and watching the World Cup and the subsequent victory celebration with friends on the beach in Castiglioncello was one of the highlights of my year. We watched Italy walk away victoriously with a 2-0 victory over Germany in the semifinals with last second goals, and five days later watch Italy take the World Cup with a victory over arch-rivals, France. I remember going dancing the night before the final, and when the DJ played the national anthem, everybody in the club stood up and started singing loud and proud. After the victory the piazza (not just in Castiglioncello but every town square in the country) was filled with people, flags, smoke, echoes of We Are The Champions, honking horns, and champagne, and for once, everybody put away their differences, their biases, their hometown loyalty, and just celebrated as a single nation.

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