Krauma Geothermal Spa, Western Iceland

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I’ve never been one to seek out baths, hot tubs or saunas. Although others find these experiences relaxing, I think they are rather dull and uncomfortable. So, when my husband (who loves all of these things) told me that he had made reservations at a geothermal spa north of Reykjavik, I wasn’t brimming with enthusiasm.

Just about everyone knows about the Blue Lagoon, the popular geothermal pool that is not too far from Kevflavik airport. Even though we were open to “touristy” experiences, we preferred to seek out some less crowded places in Iceland, if at all possible. Krauma was recommended to us by our host.

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Krauma is about 65 miles north of the capitol city
in western Iceland, near the Borgarfjörður fjord. Boiling water (about 212 degrees Fahrenheit) is piped into Krauma from the nearby Deildartunguhver hot spring. According to Krauma’s website, this hot spring has the highest flow rate of any hot spring in Europe, pumping about 180 liters (approximately 48 gallons) of water per second. This hot spring provides much of the heating in homes in this region of Iceland, as well. The boiling hot water is mixed with icy glacier water from Rauðsgi to make the temperatures suitable for soaking.

All around Krauma, hot water boils in pools and steam rises in clouds—it is a haunting yet beautiful sight.

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Admission to Krauma is about $30 USD per adult. You can bring your own bathrobe, swimwear or bath towel to Krauma. (Swimwear is required here.) You can also rent these items. Bath towel rentals are about $6 USD; bathrobes are about $10 USD; swimwear is approximately $6. A comfortable, warm locker room is provided. You’re required to take your shoes off when you enter the locker rooms (I didn’t notice this on my way in. Oops.) Hairdryers, curling irons and other tools are available to use.

Scandinavians take their baths seriously. Guests are required to shower before entering these pools. Shower well. As in, naked. (Be prepared to get over yourself; literally no one cares what you look like.) Krauma provides the nicest-smelling soap, shampoo, conditioner and shower gels—think Aveda’s Shampure scent. It also provides a diagram with the places that they want you to zero in on and take extra care with; some of these spas and pools have been known to have attendants to ensure you wash off the right way. Tripsavvy has a great etiquette guide for Icelandic hot springs. Also, read more about “how to behave” at these geothermal pools at Iceland Magazine.

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Admittedly, Krauma doesn’t have all of the extra spa experiences like other geothermal spas. Krauma was just fine for us: it had five natural geothermal baths, a cold tub, two saunas and a relaxing room with a fireplace. There is no talking allowed in the relaxing room, which is more difficult for some than for others (others=my husband, who immediately started talking when he sat down). The cold tub is about 40 degrees Fahrenheit (a hard no for me; I don’t even go into the ocean on our beaches until the water is in the low 80s). The five geothermal baths range from about 90 degrees F to about 110 degrees F. There are two larger baths and three small, cochlear-shaped baths.

We popped in and out of each of these warm baths. My husband tried the cold pool, which was madness akin to “polar plunges” on our continent. Once we were accustomed to the hotter temperatures, the cooler ones were entirely too cold. One of the pools had an “infinity” pool feature, which I quite enjoyed.

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Before we knew it, we had spent nearly two hours at Krauma. I loved the soft, relaxed feeling I had throughout the rest of the day. I was surprised how relaxing this experience was; it was part of one of my favorite and most memorable days in Iceland.

 

Read more about Krauma on Trip Adviser.

 

 

 

 

Iowa

IMG_0254Before I began my freelance work, I was an in-house writer and editor for a company that published continuing education content. On any given day, a random assortment of courses and books would cross my desk. I never knew what the day would hold.

One day, a professional engineering course showed up in my inbox to edit. These courses were often the most unexpected topics: ponds, power distribution, bridges, laws, ethics. Today, it was a course about gravel roads.

One wouldn’t think that gravel roads would be a hot topic, especially for engineers. The Federal Highway Administration, however, reported in 2012 that about 35% of America’s more than four million miles of roads were unpaved. In some states, these roads account for a large percentage of fatalities and injuries—up to 20%. There are a lot of reasons for this like, apparently, poor visibility, sharp curves, narrow lanes, not enough shoulder space, limited sight distances, obstacles and non-compliant (or no) signage. So of COURSE engineers would need to learn about how to properly build and maintain these unpaved roads.

I was flooded with memories as I read through this particular course.

I grew up in Iowa, where more than 60% of the roads are unpaved (according to the Des Moines Register). I dealt with the challenges of living with these roads and regularly traveled them to visit friends and family.

There were unpaved roads near where my mother’s sister and her family lived. I would ride along with my older cousins in their old, dusty-smelling cars. They would drive too fast over the steep hills. I would laugh, despite being a little scared, begging them to go faster. The hills’ drops would “tickle my tummy.”

I moved south over a decade ago. I’ve never really looked back. The Midwest was a different lifetime—a life that was good at times and cruel others. (Admittedly, both outcomes would be due to my own decision-making processes, which were often faulty.)

In my “bad dreams” (the word “nightmare” is too strong), I’ve found myself back in the Midwest—a place where the winters drag on and on and on. My seasonal affective disorder would rear its head.  Year after year, I would plunge back into the dark depths of depression, like clockwork, in October. In my dreams, I would emphatically insist that I needed to live—and had lived—in a place where I didn’t have to deal with this nonsense. I cried, wanting to go back where the sun would shine.

This course made me confront memories and truths.

Iowa was my home—a place where the pavement would sometimes just stop, and loose rock would begin. The landscapes were dotted with red barns and tall silos. There were grain elevators in every town. Iowa was a place that could raise characters from John Wayne and Donna Reed to the mask-wielding, numbered nightmares in Slipknot.

IMG_0255Last year, I traveled back there for the first time in ten years. I had conflicted feelings about Iowa throughout this decade of exile. Thinking about it made me feel trapped, claustrophobic and landlocked.

It was also, however, the place where I would find myself in guided relaxation or sleep tracks when I was asked to think of a “peaceful place.” In my peace, I would envision myself in the country on a warm summer day, walking down a cow pasture path behind my cousins’ hay barn. I would walk toward the small pond where we used to swim and fish. Sun-dried cow patties dotted my path. If I walked a little farther, I would come to a wooded area. A small creek ran through these woods, which was one of the feeder sources that would later become the Skunk River. My brother and I used to play there, climbing over fallen logs, splashing around in the water or playing with Matchbox cars. In Iowa, there was nothing sweeter smelling than fresh-cut hay and clover on a summer evening.

I rented a car and drove out on these gravel roads, past the places I remembered as a child. Nothing looked the same, except for the gravel roads. The weather had been dry, so dust billowed behind the car in a plume.

I kept driving, trying to recapture the sights and smells of my youth.

Prague, Czech Republic: Gingerbread, Trdlník and Haunted AirBnBs

I have always loved Frances Hodgson Burnett’s book A Little Princess.

The novel is set in the late 1800s and features young Sara Crewe, who is sent to attend an exclusive boarding school in London. On one of her father’s adventures, however, he dies. Now an orphan, Sara is suddenly the responsibility of the school’s bitter headmistress, Miss Minchin. The charity case and servant, as far as Miss Minchin is concerned, is consigned to a sparse attic room and is forced to work for her keep.

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Photo taken from the Prague Castle. The middle rooftop with the light on is our attic Airbnb bedroom.

The attic bedroom of our Prague Airbnb brought back memories of the attic bedroom that was described in A Little Princess. Its north-facing window opened up to a world of red rooftops and a lighted view of the famous Prague castle.

“You can see all sorts of things you can’t see downstairs,” Sara said in A Little Princess. “Chimneys—quite close to us—with smoke curling up in wreaths and clouds and going up into the sky…it all feels as high up—as if it was another world.”

The rental was in a very old building.  It was located on the very top floor of a multi-floor walkup; the bedroom was perched at the top of a narrow set of creaky wooden stairs in what, at one time, had been the attic.

Our Prague flat was nestled just south of the Prague Castle, on the downward slope that led toward the Vltava river. About 90% of the apartment had been updated; the only space in the apartment that didn’t appear touched was its unheated entry mud room space, which consisted of rustic wooden walls and brick floors. A two-stair entryway led to the cozy kitchen. Throughout the entire space, the ceilings were low and slanted, reminding us just how close we were to the rooftop.

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The world outside our temporary home was decorated for Christmas. An artisanal gingerbread cookie store across the street of the building’s entrance begged us to come, see, taste and featured window displays that could only be described as magical. A hike up the hill led us to the gothic Prague Castle. Its construction began in 870 A.D.; it is the largest and oldest castle in the world and sits on 750,000 square feet.

Around the castle complex, vendors in temporary shops sold glühwein, art, Christmas decorations and warm treats. We bought mugs full of spiced wine from a father and a son from France. The mugs featured the father’s artwork.

We continued down the hill, toward the Charles Bridge.

Warm white Christmas lights lit up the streets, Christmas decorations added to the magic and sweet smells wafted out from the coffee shops. My daughter begged us to try Prague’s famous trdlníks. These street desserts featured cone-shaped donut pastries that were filled with ice cream and achoice of toppings. My daughter chose a chocolate cinnamon donut filled with vanilla soft serve and drizzled with chocolate. Chris chose a donut filled whipped cream and strawberries. Neither one could finish their trdlník.

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Beef goulash, bread, potatoes, dumplings: traditional Czech food beckoned us everywhere, promising comfort, heaviness and warmth. On this chilly night, however, we had filled up on sugar, ice cream and chocolate. We walked back to our Prague apartment.

Later that night, I woke up suddenly. Heavy footsteps were ascending the creaky stairs that led up to the attic. I thought it was my daughter; the ice cream dessert had proved too much for her and she went to bed on the couch in the downstairs family room with a bellyache.

“Margaret,” I called. No answer. “Margaret?”

The footsteps continued up the stairs. They entered the bedroom. They walked over to the bed. I pulled the blankets over my head as the footsteps, recognizing how cliché this move was.

I peeked out from under the blankets to an empty room. There was no one there. I moved closer to my husband.

I thought about this old building and about the buildings, and the history, that surrounded us. If a structure was going to be haunted, it would certainly be here.

Later that morning, we got up early: we had a city tour with a guide scheduled. Chris went for a morning run to the to the castle on the top of the hill and took a picture of our lighted flat below.

We set out that morning for a full day in this favorite, historic city. We stopped by a café for a strong cup of coffee. As we ate our breakfast, I thought how many stunning changes this city had seen; it was full of colorful stories and wonderful characters. Prague was wonder, beauty, brutality, death and innovation all rolled up into one.

This city, full of paradoxes and ghosts, will likely be standing long after we are gone.

Nurnberg, Bavaria

 

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The sky darkened quickly. It felt much like the after dinner lull when we would settle in for the evening. The clock said differently: 3 p.m.

It was the first day of winter, December 21. The festive white lights brightened the darkening streets. Coffee houses transformed into glühwein stands. Christmas decorations trimmed greenery, shrubs, lamp posts, bridges, walkways and streets. The atmosphere was an energized festival, scattered between the gothic and, I dare say, creepy Medieval spires of old churches.

We were in Nuremburg during its not-to-miss time of year—Nurnberger Christkindlesmarkt. The world-famous Christmas market’s first days were recorded in letters written in 1530. It was now 2019 and a dozen generations separated us from the first years of this celebration. The world today would be unrecognizable to those who first sold their Christmas wares, desserts and warm drinks.

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The city came alive now. Wooden stalls were quickly assembled with German efficiency throughout the uneven cobblestone streets of Old Town. Lighted trees were everywhere, each branch wrapped with strands upon strands of warm, white lights. It could only be described as magical.

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We sipped warm spiced wine from our porcelain cups and took bites of drei im weggla, a three-sausage street food sandwich that was sold at nearly every corner. My drei im weggla had been stripped of most of its bread; the finger-sized sausages were loaded with sauerkraut and mustard. I ate this traditional finger food unconventionally—with a fork and a knife.

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We shared the market’s heavy comfort food between the three of us, wishing the beautiful layers of marzipan tasted as good as they had looked behind the glass (although my daughter said it was the best thing she had ever tasted). I longed to buy just a few of delicate and unique Christmas decorations that looked like magic underneath the red and white candy-striped roofs of these rustic, temporary storefronts.

Germany was everything I had hoped it would be. Many of its buildings had seen war, death, unprecedented change:

  • These holes here were caused by the bullets that were fired during a street fight during World War II;
  • Walk up this steep brick-lined street—soon you’ll find Kaiserburg, a Medieval castle built around the year 1000;
  • Next to this, you will see the famous Albrecht Dürer house, once home of Nuremburg’s favorite child. Paintings of the 15th century German painter, theorist and printmaker were scattered throughout the city. I thought he looked a bit like Jesus;
  • Over by the water is the Heilig-Geist-Spital, a former hospital that was founded in 1332. It is now a retirement home and a restaurant. I would have a traditional German meal there later that evening, a meal that would feel much like a grandmother’s hug. I ordered sauerbraten, a tender spiced pot roast, and kartoffelkloesse—round potato dumplings.

Our Airbnb was in the shadow of Nuremburg’s castle. The flat itself was functional, if impersonal. It required an uphill hike to get there but provided everything we needed for the four short days we would call it home. I bought a bag of potatoes and onions. I planned on roasted chicken for our Christmas meal: the pint-sized oven would not hold our usual turkey.

Kaiserburg was majestic and spooky; a German flag flew high overhead. Lights burned in the tower at night; we wondered who was up there and what they were doing. When Chris asked the next day, the shopkeepers said they didn’t know. This further fueled our curiosity.

We huddled together in a frigid, unheated St. Lorenz church for its Christmas Eve service. Treasure surrounded us. From the stained-glass windows, the intricately carved stone and woodwork to the majestic organ and gold statues, we were surrounded by objects that were as old, if not older, than Henry VIII (I mused). Giant chandeliers were lowered from the towering ceilings, and individual white pillar candles were lit for this occasion.

We had bought a tiny portable Christmas tree for the flat. We decorated it with a strand of lights, along with four or five ornaments that had no sentimental value. The Airbnb consisted of two bedrooms, a kitchen and a bathroom. We put the small tree in our 11-year-old daughter’s room. She left the lights on all day and all night. She loved the soft glow that, even in this unfamiliar flat and thousands of miles away from home, made it feel more like Christmas.

On the 26th, we tore down the tree and put it outside near the rubbish, hoping someone would see it and rescue it. There wasn’t room for it in the tiny Volkswagen hatchback we had rented, which was now packed and ready to head to Vienna.

We left Nuremberg.

The decorations there were no longer lit. The city seemed dreary. The buzz of Christkindlesmarket was now quiet; the smell of gingerbread and rum punch had faded. The sky was gray, and the streets were wet with the spitting rain that never seemed to turn to snow.

I tried not to let the gloom set in. There was so much more to see, to experience, to do. I felt at home here. Aside from the lone Dutch blood that my father’s mother brought into the mix, my family had all come from Germany. My family names seemed to be everywhere in Germany and throughout Austria—on restaurants, within subway schedules, on street signs, as towns.

We merged onto the Autobahn. Chris stepped on the gas, driving as fast as we could east, toward the signs that said “Wein” and “Österreich.” The sky was low and dreary, but the hills were a brilliant green and sprinkled with castles.

Southern Iceland: Kerið, Grimsnes Area

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It was happy hour in Reykjavik.

When one spends any time in this city, one realizes that happy hour is a legit thing: it’s a festive time when drinks are discounted, making them more accessible to the average person’s budget.

One of Chris’ goals was to get an Icelander to talk to him. He had had little success with this.

We did, however, find that bartenders didn’t mind talking to us, happily answering our very American questions. We met a diverse group of people from Turkey, Ireland and Romania.

“I came here for the nature,” said the pretty Romanian bartender named Eva (not her real name). “But when you work all the time, you don’t see much nature.”

She asked where we were visiting during our short, four-day Iceland trip. Chris, who had made a spreadsheet and an itinerary that accounted for just about every waking moment, enthusiastically shared our plans.OYzIJ7YWRpSleVOHuDQSeA

Eva wrinkled her nose and muttered something about tourists and tourist busses. She encouraged us to look for more out-of-the-way places that weren’t quite as well-traveled.

“Do you have any suggestions,” Chris asked.

She mentioned a crater nearby, Kerið.

Upon further investigation, we found that it was not too far from some of our other planned destinations within the “Golden Circle,” which is a tourist route in southern Iceland.

Tourists (um…like us) flock to the Golden Circle in order to experience the country’s three most popular attractions: Geysir (Haukadalur Valley), Gullfoss Waterfall and Þingvellir National Park.+jLLFZPOT76xTOfP6ujqMQ

When we arrived at Kerið the next morning, several tour busses sat in the parking lot. So much for heading off the beaten path.

A small kiosk was set up at the “entrance” of the park and we were required to pay a 400ISK (about $3) entrance fee.

Eva would later scoff at this when we visited her again. “I can’t believe they’re charging to get in there now,” she said. I later read that this site is on privately owned land. The fee goes toward the land’s upkeep.vLiR+LBvT7abhoAfxapofg

Kerið turned out to be breathtaking.

Located in the Grimsnes area of south Iceland, Kerið is thought to have once been a cone-shaped volcano. Scientists believe that this three- thousand-year-old volcano forcefully erupted, depleting its magma reserve and subsequently collapsing in on itself.

Throughout the centuries, the crater has filled with water; because of the minerals within the rocks, the water inside the crater takes on a bluish-aqua hue. The caldera is about 180-feet deep, 560-feet wide and 890-feet across. The water level is the same level as the water table, which rises and falls throughout the year.YRlfQ4Z5QiKnQUDaSgWQGA

The slopes leading down to the water (which you can climb, but we chose to not to) are red due to the iron deposits. We walked along the upper edge of the crater and looked down.

The craggy volcanic rock path surrounded by green vegetation took much concentration: this is not a place where you would want to trip and fall down.

We visited in mid-May; it was cold and rainy. The ice on the lake had melted by this time. A review by another visitor in April complained that the lake was frozen and had dirty snow on it.

We stood on a corner at the top of the crater and took our photos with the Iceland flag we had brought. The awe and beauty of this literal mountaintop experience was something that we never wanted to forget.

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Geysir: Iceland’s Haukadalur Valley

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I sat in an oversized leather chair, holding a six-dollar Americano in my hands and listening to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA.”

I was trying desperately to warm up, having been soaked from head to toe by the steady rain. Once again, I noted my appreciation for the Goodwill-bought Cuddl Duds I was wearing underneath my clothing. I had worn them in  Nepal and now in Iceland. The decade in Florida had thinned my blood considerably and the extra warmth was a beautiful thing.

Nepal’s air had been dry, crisp and clear; Iceland’s inclement weather regularly spit water at us. We saw the sun once for a few moments. The vast majority of the time, however, a heavy, dense cloud cover hung low in the sky. These were the types of days that sent Floridians indoors and resulted in a marked decrease in productivity. 

Although the rain was a regular occurrence, I refused to buy an umbrella. Umbrella prices averaged around twenty dollars. For this reason, my perpetually damp clothing became the norm.

We had wandered around Geysir hot springs, an active geothermal area located in the Haukadalur valley of southern Iceland. We were here to see the volcanic pools, experience the geysers and take in the volatile yet beautiful landscape. It didn’t disappoint: it was beautiful, amazing and surreal–just like every other natural phenomenon we had visited within this picturesque little country.

P4cGfvBpTg+8HH9SYFJ8ugIMG_4165 Our adventure in Iceland was short: four days. In the weeks leading up to this trip, Chris had researched, planned and mapped the places we needed to see and experience with precision detail. He was determined to not waste a single moment.

Unfortunately, droves of tourist busses also had the same idea: a steady flow of them entered and exited the popular location within the heart of the “Golden Circle.” Wide-eyed tourists armed with cameras filed off their transports.  I realized that this described us, too; however, we marched to the beat of our own drum. We rented a car and relished the freedom that this expense had provided us.jmYBKcblRRm6mQCY0tudgw

Iceland’s volcanic activity had formed this area–as well as this whole island–millions of years ago. Black lava fields and volcanic rocks remained and are strewn everywhere: in countrysides, near the ocean, in towns. The beaches are made from black sand. Even the salt is black.FoEIZoSKQyyInC3JGsQypA

2Pvu0e7pTMG3wCjPjzL1zgIceland straddles two tectonic plates: the Eurasian plate and the North American plate. These plates are slowly moving away from each other at a rate of about just under one inch per year, causing the country-wide geological phenomena that people flock to the Scandinavian country to see.

Iceland is one of the only places on Earth where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is visible above sea level. About 90 percent of the fissure that circles the planet is located under ocean waters. In Iceland, however, you can see the crack, walk through it and even swim around it at Thingvellier (Þingvellir) National Park.c6zq+HZMRh2vfdW8UJQ+dA

Because of this volcanic activity, the hot water in Iceland is serious business. Not only is it scalding hot right out of the tap, this abundant natural resource is harnessed and is used for sustainable energy. For this reason, Iceland’s heating and energy is fairly inexpensive. The geothermal power plants located across the country produce about 30 percent of the country’s electricity and meet the hot water needs of about 87 percent of Iceland’s 338,000 residents.

We were visiting the Thingvellir tomorrow. Today, however, we were exploring this hot spring area in the rain. Steam rolled up and billowed around us, caused by the underground and surface boiling water pools that bubbled from the ground in varying degrees of intensity. A heavy sulfur smell lingered in the air.

When Chris first told me that we would visit this area, I had a bit of a “been-there-done-that” attitude. I had been to Yellowstone National Park multiple times. Although the landscape was somewhat similar, the United States had bubble-wrapped its volcanic gem  with ramps, gates and fences. Here, there wasn’t much standing between me and the boiling pits of death–merely a thin rope.aGe76%0URjyi07JA4hH2fgVqdIvNUlSP+VE7I%tmNuwg

There was one large warning sign as we approached. The distance to the nearest hospital was in black and white: it was about 38 miles away. For the unfortunate soul who tripped and fell or attempted to “test the temperature” of the water, it would be a long, agonizing ride to help.DrRZLWg9Rn6uwuOJ4Jw

I bent down to touch the ground; it was hot. Steam billowed out from the earth in fumaroles around us. The heat felt good.

We headed toward one of the most predictable geysers in the park, Strokkur. Boiling water explodes from geyser at a rate of about every eight minutes to 10 minutes and reaches as high as 90-plus feet into the air.

We wandered throughout the area, marveling at the volcanic pools around us. They were brilliant blues, yellows and oranges.  Although research had shown that the area had been active for about 10,000 years, the geysers in the valley have varied in their frequency, awakened periodically by earthquakes.

About 30 geysers surrounded us. “Geysir,” which is the largest, can go years between eruptions and is currently in an inactive phase. We had seen Smiður and Litli-Strokkur, as well as had witnessed the power of Strokkur. We had seen boiling mud pots and had looked deep into the earth, thanks to the crystal-clear water of these pools.

As we sat in the visitor’s center, eating pastries and drinking warm drinks, I reflected on the beauty of the land around us. I appreciated this amazing adventure, despite the cold drizzle, the dark skies and the rain.

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Ashes: Pashupatinath Kathmandu

IMG_4733If I closed my eyes and imagined myself somewhere else, it would have been in a happy place. Like, at a Memorial Day barbeque. Chris would be grilling burgers on our lanai; I would be setting out our favorite broccoli salad—the one with the raisins, red onions and bacon bits. The kids would want to open the bag of Wavy Lays and the French onion dip. “Don’t open that until dinnertime,” I would yell. I would then open it myself when the kids wandered off. I’d shove several chips in my mouth when I made sure they were out of sight.

IMG_4740I would have preferred to be there. Not here.

I fished the face mask out of my yak wool jacket’s pocket as soon as I began to see the wafts of smoke billowing across the path in front of me. This would be neither pleasant nor easy. I fastened the ear loops around my right ear, then my left.

I pulled the mask up and covered my mouth, then my nose. My eyes were still exposed to the air; they burned. I would later send the clothing to the laundry service at our guest house and would take a shower. The smell of burning meat permeated and lingered.

It would be more accurate, however, to say that the smell of “burning flesh” lingered.

The smell of cooked meat, the billowing smoke—it was all caused by burning bodies. It was 11 a.m. on a Tuesday.  Barely 24 hours before, the bodies had been people: they had laughed; they had cried; they had probably known they were going to die. Their families had gathered around them to say their goodbyes.

It was hospice.

I am at Pashupati Nath on the banks of the Bagmati River in Kathmandu, an area that consists of 518 temples and monuments. This is the biggest shrine in Hinduism. It is also one of the holiest places, where the dead are prepared for their eternal ritual. It was recognized as an UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979. It is dedicated to Pashupati, an incarnation of the Hindu god, Shiva. “Pashu” means “living beings”; “Pati” means “master.” According to maptia.com, “Pashupati is the master of all living beings in the universe.”

The grounds are crawling (literally) with monkeys. The “sadhus,” who are ascetic “holy men,” are seated around the area, covered in the ashes from the funeral pyres. They have unshaven beards and long hair. They wear orange robes; although, some are naked. Naked yoga sometimes occurs. (We did not see this when we visited.)

In Hinduism, those who are cremated on the banks of the Bagmati River and whose ashes enter the water will have their sins washed away. In turn, they will be closer to their eternal goal, which is referred to as “moksha,” “nirvana,” or “samadhi.” This goal is essentially a release from the cycle of life—of death and rebirth.  All living things are trapped in this cycle, a belief that ultimately results in the caste system.

IMG_4744The bodies are prepared by the oldest son, who is the “lead cremator.” Before the cremation begins, he bathes himself in the river. The women step aside: they are not allowed in the area while the ceremony occurs.

The bodies are wrapped in white or red (red, if it is a woman whose husband is still alive). Water is put in the deceased’s mouth. The big toes are tied together with a string and a Tilaka (a mark on the forehead) is applied. The body is put first on a ghat near the river and is then set on the pyre with its feet facing south.

There were currently no less than six cremations happening, just across the trash-strewn “river.” At this point, in early January, the Bagmati River seemed less like a river and more like a trickle of water. (Although I grew up along the banks of the Mississippi. So, my standards of what constitute a “river” are slightly skewed.)

The water was filthy. A little girl of seven or eight had taken her shoes off and had waded into calf-deep water. Smiling, she fished something out of the water. She lifted it up triumphantly to show her brother who was kicking rocks on the riverbank. I wondered what she had found. At that age, my daughter would have collected rocks, mulch, ribbons—it didn’t take much to pique her interest.

“Look at that,” my friend Michael said as he leaned in next to me. He pointed to an active pyre. I looked just as a leg—from the knee down—tumbled out of it and onto the ground.

uXZdq0JJTPeCNV5su28s7gThe man tending the pyre, perhaps the lead mourner, grabbed two sticks. He deftly picked the limb up and flipped it back into the fire. The charred foot remained visible. I wondered who this person had been — what his or her contribution had been to the world. To me, he/she would always be associated with, “that time I saw the foot fall out of the fire at Pashupati.”

The air was heavy with not only smoke and ash, but with sadness. This was a place of sorrow and of death. I could feel it; it was acute. I believe I could feel it even more so: my dad had been cremated hardly a month before on the other side of the world.

We had sat in a small room at a dark paneled wood conference table on rolling caster leather office chairs.  A young woman sat in the corner. She wore foundation that was several shades too light and a dress that was at least two sizes too small. She didn’t say a word, but fetched water for us and, occasionally, documents off the printer.

The shock of his death had barely set in. Not even 48 hours before, I had rushed to the hospital as fast as I could. I didn’t make it on time. I had instinctively known this. When I had pulled over to call my mom, the hospital’s chaplain answered her phone. Never a good sign.

“Thank you for being with her,” was all I could say. Several hours later, I kissed his forehead. He looked like he was sleeping.

My brother, husband and I sat with my mother in a weird, uneasy silence across from a rotund man in a cheap suit. He was nice, straightforward, and considerate—everything you would want in a funeral director, although I had no experience with this. It had been a preneed arrangement and had been already paid for. The date on the preneed papers my mom clutched within her file said 2015.

There were, however, several choices we need to make.

“Behind you are the biodegradable urns,” the man in the cheap suit said. We all turned, as if choreographed, to look simultaneously at the selections. They were all unremarkable, I thought; as Marie Kondo would say, nothing “sparked joy.” None were remarkable enough to hold my dad—a person who was utterly remarkable in every way. Not every daughter could say that, but I could. And I still can.

They were all slightly chintzy. He would have scoffed at the choices. We chose the biodegradable urn with butterflies on it. It wasn’t really him, but it would do: It would be going into the ground, anyway…what did he care?

The man went through the charges. He fussed around with a credit that had resulted when we decided that the burial would be performed at a later date: transportation wouldn’t be needed to the cemetery.

We designed the funeral programs.

The cardboard box in which he would be cremated cost $90.fullsizeoutput_1ac7.jpeg

I looked across the river at the bodies covered in orange cloth and sprinkled with marigolds. We had seen strings of marigolds draped across homes, shops, gates. Here, they were laid across the bodies before they were burned. I thought they were beautiful; however, I would never look at marigolds the same way.

His forehead had been so cold when I had kissed it. I’m sure the bodies across the river from me were also cold. Although the sun was out, it was a chilly day. The families of the deceased sat huddled together by each funeral pyre. I wondered if they felt the warmth from the fire in front of them; I wondered how it felt to know that the fire’s fuel and warmth came from their loved one.

My eyes stung. I realized I was crying.

Be Friendly to Foreigners

IMG_4881 “What does that sign mean,” I asked our guide between huffs and puffs. The sweat dripped off my forehead and stung my eyes. The wooden green-and-white sign was posted in intricate Nepali script on the side of the trail where I was currently struggling. We had tackled about 750 feet of Pokhara’s Anadu Hill on our way to Shanti Stupa, one of the world’s 80 peace pagodas.

Pokhara ranges between 2,713 feet and 5,710 feet in elevation. It is Nepal’s second largest city and is a short 30-minute plane flight from Kathmandu. (Our plane ride was taken via an airline named “Yeti,” appropriately. Our hopelessly spry flight attendant darted up and down the aisles — first with cotton balls [for the ears], then with hard candies. She raced to hand out peanuts and pour us each a glass of water before we touched down in the Pokhara Valley.)

The contrast between Pokhara and Kathmandu was stunning: The resort-like town of Pokhara had a lighter, less chaotic feel than that of Nepal’s capital city. I welcomed the reprieve from the Kathmandu Valley’s dust situation, which seemed to permeate everywhere and everything. Pokhara’s days were warm, bright and sunny. Paragliders with colorful chutes bounded off the sides of the cliffs, and then floated peacefully down toward Fewa Lake. Colorful canoes cut across the water and took loads of tourists to the Tal Barai Temple, which was located on a tiny island in the middle of the lake.

Pokhara Valley was picturesque: The city looked up to sharply ascending emerald-green mountains. (Nepali call them “hills.” I noted that their “hills” are the size of the Rockies.)

On clear days, the Himalayan mountain range that boasts three of the ten highest peaks in the world can be seen: Dhaulagirl (26,794 ft.), Annapurna I Main (26,545 ft.), and Manaslu (26,781 ft.). The city’s most famous peak, Machuchare, is said to resemble a fishtail. It reaches 22,943 feet and can be seen to the north. (Consider the highest point in the Rocky Mountain range, Mount Elbert, at 14,440 ft.)

U16aubrXTTm0rCPgq0QDRA“It says, ‘Be friendly to foreigners,’” he said. I was taken slightly aback. From what I had seen, being friendly to foreigners seemed like second nature to the Nepali people. Everywhere we went during this 10-day trip, we were met with smiles, hot, sweet milk tea (masala tea with loads of sugar and hot milk) and cookies. I enthusiastically accepted both…and more, if offered, given how much walking was occurring on a daily basis.

On this particular day, I had registered over 17,770 steps and 80-something stories. (Upon learning this, I promptly tore open another sleeve of cookies and attacked it. Think Cookie Monster; not a fine moment.) The trek up was mostly stairs, anathemas that I tended to avoid whenever possible, opting for elevators instead. I shuffled along slowly, occasionally stopping to sit on the edge of a cliff to catch my breath — as well as to catch the stunning views of PokIMG_4879hara.

I was passed by Nepali families: men, women, children — even a grandmotherly lady who appeared to be well into her 70s. (She carried a walking stick, I noticed. Next time, I vowed, I would find a walking stick.)

“Namaste,” I heard, over and over.

“Namaste,” I returned.

All friendly, all welcoming. All, presumably, slightly amused at the American-who-was-clawing-her-way-to-the-top-of-the-hill-no-matter-what.

No, I didn’t think that any of the Nepali people I had encountered needed any reminders to be friendly to foreigners.

Americans? Now, Americans are another story. We need to be reminded of a lot of things: “Slow traffic, move right”; “Don’t drink and drive”; “Slow down, workers present”; “Employees, wash hands before returning to work,” lest our brains and our common sense fall out into a puddle on the floor and we forget.  Americans — many of whom are lulled into complacency by social media and the ease of their everyday lives — need to be reminded to be friendly and considerate, as if decency doesn’t even come naturally anymore.

The default emotion now seems to be “OUTRAGE.” We are OUTRAGED when someone cuts us off in traffic, merges into our lane, looks at us wrong, slights us. We shake our fist; the middle finger flies up. Yet, when compared to much of the world, our lives are ridiculously easy.  This was my number-one takeaway from my trip to Nepal: We have it so, so easy compared with the rest of the world. We are OUTRAGED by things that don’t matter — little things, really.

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I was surrounded by natural beauty everywhere in Nepal; the view from the top of the World Peace Pagoda was stunning. I climbed the stairs to circle the pagoda, which featured four statues of the Buddha in shimmering gold. It was late afternoon. As the sun went down, it would become chilly, even cold.

I started back down the steps that were carved into the side of Anadu Hill, down the hill toward Fewa Lake. We returned to our colorful canoes, and then to lakeside Pokhara.

There, we would sit down with friends for daal bhat, milk tea and cookies.