Travel

Lisbon, Portugal

My first thought when flying into Lisbon, Portugal was, “Where am I?” It looks just like San Francisco.

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Turns out the 25 de Abril Bridge was built by the American Bridge Company. The same company that built the Bay Bridge and it is painted the same color as the Golden Gate Bridge - International Orange.

After my initial disorientation, landing and making my way to Lisbon was super easy. Made easier, I hate to say, by Uber. Yep - Uber is available in Lisbon and inexpensive. As a result, I didn’t have to even change money or speak Portuguese, for that matter.

I landed first thing in the morning and made my way to my hotel, the dreamy Memmo Alfama Hotel. This was my view. I should add - I had perfect weather on my trip. :)

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I arrived so early that I wasn’t able to check in but the people at the hotel couldn’t have been lovelier. They gave me a space to clean up and stored my luggage. I then headed out on a walking tour I had booked. It turned out to be the perfect way to get acclimated and fight off jet lag!

One of our first stops was a tribute to the great Fado singer, la diva du Fado, Amalia Rodrigues.

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We winded our way throughout the many small corridors of the Alfama district until the afternoon. My guide, Emanuele, was wonderful and made me feel so welcome.

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After a quick stop at the hotel I then decided to head out on foot to Belém, Lisbon, about a 2 hour walk. The people at the hotel thought I was crazy, but I knew I needed to keep moving to stave off sleep. Plus, if you know me, you know I was driven by something else:

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I admit it’s a tourist destination, but after some very scientific sampling of pastries throughout Lisbon (see also Manteigaria (Chiado or Time Out Market) and Pastelaria Batalha (also in Chiado), I can say that Belém really did have the best Pastel de Nata (basically an egg custard tart).

Oh - Belém also has a palace with a changing of the guard you can check out, too.

In fact, Lisbon had a plethora of great food options. I also recommend the Time Out Market (super crowded but like the San Francisco Ferry Building - lots of gourmet food stalls), Mar Ao Camo (seafood just off a delightful square), Ponto Final, and Cervejaria Ramira (where I had the best lobster of my life - see below) (thank you dear Lobster). Note: if you really want to go to the source, go to Farol - it’s where the fishermen go and it’s just a ferry ride to Cacilhas.

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After a full day of walking and eating I returned to my hotel and passed out. My plan was to get up early the next day and check out Sintra, a town just outside of Lisbon with lush gardens and several palaces.

I did manage to get up early but missed the first train out. So naturally I called an Uber!

I had a fantastic driver who took me straight up to the Palácio Nacional da Pena. I recommend starting there as it’s the highest part of Sintra and then you can easily walk down to the other palaces and the old town.

Also, pro tip: you only need to pay to access the park (about 7 Euros) and not the palace. The palace ticket is for an inside tour which I heard from others was not worth it. FYI.

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And if you go first thing in the morning, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful, unobstructed views.

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After scouring the Palace and gardens, I walked out and turned left towards the Castle of the Moors. You can check out that Castle or just keep walking on the trail that winds alongside it down to Old Town. It’s an easy walk that only requires tennis shoes/sneakers.

Old Town has a nice big square with views for days.

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And of course, lots of nearby food options. Sintra has its own pastry, called Queijadas. They’re tarts made with cheese or milk.

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I spent the day in Sintra and then headed back to Lisbon for an evening walk through town and then headed to a Fado show. These are typically very touristy and can require cover charges that include dinner. Fado’s roots are in Alfama, but if you just want to hear up and coming singers and have a drink, I recommend heading out to ___.

Other places people recommend: Tasca do Chico (only certain nights), A Baiuca, and Viste Allegre. 

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Sigh. I miss Lisbon and Portugal already. There’s more to tell. Claramente! But this is where I’ll leave you, because I left Lisbon for a bit to visit Marrakech!

Vietnam And Cambodia

Here's a run down of my itinerary from my trip to Vietnam and Cambodia.

Day One: Hanoi, Vietnam
A big city with little people. In Vietnam small is considered good.

Ho Chi Minh is also revered. His Mausoleum Square was the only place on the trip that didn't have mopeds zipping through it.

Alicia Morga Hanoi
Alicia Morga Ho Chi Minh

While in Vietnam I tried my hand at making incense.  

Alicia Morga Vietnam Incense

Day Two: Halong Bay
First we stopped at the Phu Dong village. On the way we saw a family preparing a rice nursery field, and then we boarded a tender which took us to our boat and accommodations for the night, The Ginger, on Halong Bay. 

Alicia Morga rice field
Alicia Morga The Ginger

Day Three: More Halong Bay

I started the morning with some Tai Chi on the boat and then did a hike on Cat Ba Island. On the way back I caught some men at work.

Alicia Morga Halong Bay
Alicia Morga men at work

Next, I had a fabulous lunch back on the boat and ended the day with a kayak around the bay. The sky was pretty overcast when I was there and unfortunately, the water wasn't very clean.

Alicia Morga kayaking
Alicia Morga Vietnam dead fish

What you're looking at above is a dead fish and a teddy bear.

(Photo credit for the two photos above: Henrike Quarch)

Day Four: Back to Hanoi

The next day we took the tender to shore, rode a bus back to Hanoi and then after lunch took a cyclo ride through the Old Quarter to the "Hanoi Hilton" - where Senator John McCain was imprisoned.

The "Hanoi Hilton" aside, the cyclo ride was by far the craziest part of the day's travels. It was poetry in motion how the cyclo driver was able to navigate the traffic - which never seems to stop.

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Day Five: Historic Hue

On day five we flew to Hue and visited The Hue Citadel. Later that night we visited the traditional Mandarin home of Vinh Tu and readied for another day of travel.

Alicia Morga Vietnam The Citadel

Day 6: Royal Tombs and the Perfume River

On day six we walked through the Valley of the Kings, took a Dragon Boat up the Perfume River and visited royal tombs.

Alicia Morga Valley of Kings
Alicia Morga Perfume River

Then we took a long bus ride along the coast of Hoi An and ended up at the Nam Hai Resort - heaven on earth. In the evening, we dined in town and visited a tailor known for its ability to knock out any outfit in 24 hours.  I had a few favorite clothing items replicated and was astonished with the results.

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Day 7: Ancient Hoi An

On day 7 we walked through Old Town and then took a local ferry to Cam Kim Island where we hiked among many tombs.

The Vietnamese live with death. It's very much a part of life for the people there. There are so many elaborate tombs in the countryside that it's affecting property development.

There is also a custom where people are buried for three years and then after three years the body is dug up, the bones cleaned, and put in a box. That box is then buried. The whole process is done in the early morning before the sun comes out and now families can pay a person to perform this ritual.

In fact, one of the local guides in my trip had to excuse himself, as he said, "To go dig up his aunt."

At the end of our hike we arrived at the beach.

Alicia Morga Vietnam Tombs
Alicia Morga Camkim Island

In the evening, I took a cooking class at the Morning Glory Restaurant in Hoi An where I learned to cook among other dishes, banh xeo, a crepe-like pancake stuffed with shrimp and veggies. After, I headed to bed because the next morning we left early for Siem Reap, Cambodia.

Day 8: Travel to Siem Reap

On day 8, we took a plane out of Da Nang to Ho Chi Minh City and then another flight from there to Siem Reap. We started around 5am and finally arrived in Cambodia around noon. In the afternoon we began our tours of temples with a blessing by a Buddhist monk.

Alicia Morga Cambodia blessing

Day 9: the Countryside and Ta Prohm
On Day 9, we took a shuttle to a village built on stilts about an hour outside Siem Reap. The stilts protect the houses from seasonal flooding. The poverty here was great and the very young population special to meet.

Alicia Morga Cambodia stilts
Alicia Morga Cambodia boy fishing

After lunch in a local house we went back to Siem Reap and took a shuttle to Ta Prohm, a temple.

Oh the food!  Not very spicy but full of greens and spices.  Cambodian food has more Indian influence and can be a bit spicier than Vietnamese food, but you don't encounter too much heat in either cuisine.

Alicia Morga Cambodia temple
Alicia Morga Vietnam chile

There were, of course, spring rolls, and pho (pronounced "fuh") and all sorts of fish.  In both Vietnam and Cambodia, dairy is rare.  The people get most of their calcium from fish and what they call morning glory (aka spinach). Here's a pic of how they transport white fish in Cambodia.

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Alicia Morga Cambodia packing fish

The real revelation for me, though, was the fruit.  What glorious fruit! From the Queen of Fruits, the Mangosteen to the Star Fruit (Cambola) to the Durian

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Alicia Morga starfruit

Durian is the fruit famous for it's bad smell. The brown piece you see in it is the seed. Against my olfactory judgment I took a bite of it.  It actually tasted pretty good.  I'd describe the taste as close to an onion cheese.  I know that's not what you expect out of your fruit, but I was surprised how creamy and digestible it was.  My Cambodian guide declared it his favorite thing to eat.

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Day 10: Sunrise at Angkor Watt
On my final day, I woke early and took in the sunrise at Angkor Watt. Angkor means Cambodian and Watt refers to a Buddhist temple. Then I headed home to San Francisco. Overall, I found Vietnam to be be changing rapidly and Cambodia, in particular, a very moving place.

Alicia Morga Angkorwatt

Azerbaijan: Travel Tips for Women

Azerbaijan is 93% Muslim (majority Shia) and 90% Azeri (ethnicity). It is, however, a pretty secular culture. In Baku, the capital and the largest city in the country, you will see only a few women with covered hair. In fact, the women are pretty cosmopolitan - complete with high heels and lots of make-up. Still, I thought I would compile here a few tips for women, in particular, when traveling to Azerbaijan.

1. Travel to Azerbaijan requires a visa. You can get one in the U.S. at either the Azerbaijan embassy in Washington D.C. or in Los Angeles. From my experience, the Los Angeles embassy is better. The fee is $131 and you will need to fed ex your passport and application to them. You can get the application online.

2. Azerbaijan is 12 hours ahead of pacific daylight time so jet lag is inevitable - on both sides. I highly recommend bringing sleeping pills for at least the first night in Azerbaijan (note that many refer to the country in abbreviation as AZ).

3. In general, women shouldn't be out alone after 9pm. I heard a number of first hand accounts of women being harassed when out late at night by themselves or with other women. If you're out late with a man in the city, you're usually okay.

4. While women here do wear tight clothing, most are pretty covered up. Dress modestly. I should also add that women very much dress like women. Which is to say it is rare to see a woman dressed in jeans, a t-shirt and running shoes. I saw exactly one woman dressed like this during my entire trip and she was a young woman who said she wanted to be a computer scientist when she grew up!

5. In some places in the capital, and in most places outside of the big city that is Baku, you will encounter "Turkish toilets" aka toilets that amount to a hole in the ground. Most restrooms do not have tissue paper. So carry tissue with you everywhere. I found the bulk tissue packs you can buy at Walgreens to be life savers. Also, the best way to navigate the toilet infrastructure, I found, is to wear skirts. I know this sounds odd, but it's true. When you wear long pants you run the risk of your pants hitting the ground in some pretty dicey locales. I traveled to Azerbaijan in the winter and skirts with tights were just the ticket.

6. There are surprisingly few trash cans in restrooms. So, if you're a woman, you may need to bring your own hygiene bags. Also of note, the use of tampons is very limited in the country. You will not find tampons with applicators in pharmacies. Fyi. (BTW - if you are a man reading this, don't say I didn't warn you!)

7. Also, because the rest of the world is not as germ phobic as the U.S., it is difficult to find hand sanitizer in Azerbaijan. So bring your own. I found it very helpful when traveling outside of Baku as most restrooms had limited means for washing up.

8. If you're traveling from the U.S. you won't need a converter, but you will need an adapter for using electronic devices in Azerbaijan. South European/Middle East adapters work in Azerbaijan - even outside Baku.

9. The food is pretty heavy on the meat and fat. Even fish, when available, is usually fried. The good news, though, is fresh vegetables and fruit are plentiful. In fact, I found the produce to be very good. Now, it won't look as pretty as the cosmetically enhanced produce in U.S. grocery stores, but the flavor of the fruits and vegetables in Azerbaijan was superb.

10. There is wi-fi for internet access at most hotels, but very limited in other places - even universities. There are internet cafes that can be used to check email in most towns. Surprisingly, my Blackberry was of no use to me in Azerbaijan. Verizon charges on a per use basis in this country. Which means that you will have to pay close to $5.00 per mb to check your email using your blackberry. Not worth it! I disabled data on my phone during my trip and had it turned off the entire time I was there.

11. Many travel websites will say you can use U.S. dollars in Azerbaijan and in theory you can. But in practice, few people accept them. Also, outside of Baku, most won't accept credit cards either. My hotel in Seki said they could accept credit cards but their system was down and I ultimately had to pay in Manats. So you are better off bringing Manats (AZN) or using an ATM to withdraw Manats when in Baku. You won't be able to use ATMs in most areas outside of Baku.

12. Finally, some odd but true cultural guidelines: a. It's not appropriate to go outside with wet hair; if you walk around with wet hair it implies that you just had sex b. It's also not appropriate to put on Chapstick in public - again, it has sexual connotations c. It's unseemly to drink water from the bottle; women are expected to drink from a glass d. Women are not allowed to smoke and a woman smoking here would be a big no-no

There you have it. Some travel essentials for women. It's an interesting country and if you find yourself traveling there, I hope you find these tips useful.

Azerbaijan: Hotels

There are some reviews on Trip Advisor for these hotels, but I often find that most reviews don't have the crucial details that women travelers need - like does the place have a hair dryer so I don't need to lug mine?

Landmark Hotel - Baku This hotel has a hair dryer that is attached to the wall. The good news is that the provided hair dryer will get the job done. Even for those afflicted as I am with frizzy hair. While Baku is on the waterfront, the high winds in the winter make it dry enough to make drying your hair pretty easy. The downside is that you have to hold down a button to get the dryer to blow which can lead to serious hand cramps if you have a lot of hair like I do.

Bathroom amenities include bar soap, gel, shampoo, conditioner (though I found the conditioner to be pretty weak), and hair cap. It also has cotton swabs for your ears.

The room, however, has a terrible mirror for applying make-up. It does have a magnifying mirror for contemplating your pores, but the lighting is so bad that it doesn't make it much fun.

This hotel has a good gym. It's as state of the art as I think you can fairly expect for a developing country. It also has a pool and a 360 view of the city. You should note that the pool does have women hours - meaning, hours where only women may swim.

Finally, the laundry service here was good. I would advise getting your laundry done only in Baku. It's unclear what level of service you would get at hotels (even the best ones) outside of Baku.

Seki Saray - Seki The rooms are pretty simple, but they have much better bathroom mirrors and shallow counters so you can position yourself really close to the mirror for application of make-up. The bathrooms do have a built-in blow dryer but they are so ancient that they won't do you much good. The blow dryer is one of those ingenious designs where the hot air comes through the handle and will eventually burn your hand. I had to grip it with a towel to even use its weak air flow.

But the good and bad thing is the heat in the hotel (at least in winter) is turned up so high that when I exited the shower, I didn't have to towel off - the water instantly evaporated on my skin. Which is also to say, use the ancient device to shape your bangs and then let the room's excessive heat problem do the rest.

By excessive I mean you will sweat it's so damn hot. We're not talking comfortable mid 60s or even mid 70s. The rooms are 80s and beyond. The hotel uses an old radiator system and I learned later that is why most people have their windows open even in the dead of winter. There is no other way to control the temperature. I, being from California, had no idea and suffered one night above sheets sweltering.

Also worth noting is that the electricity goes out often in the hotel.

Further, when I asked for an iron to press a skirt, they took a long time (over an hour) to bring me one. I think this was because they were probably in deep debate over whether they should entrust it to me because I later learned (when the front desk called me in the middle of the night and out of a dead sleep to tell me) that this was the only iron the hotel owned and they needed it back to press the pants of another guest.

This hotel does not have a gym. Interestingly, the bathroom amenities did not include conditioner (only shampoo), but did include cotton swabs!

Ramada Hotel - Ganja This is an American chain so it looks pretty much like a chain hotel you'd encounter at home. The room configuration is pretty strange and the furniture is positioned fairly close together making it difficult to walk around.

The good news is that the rooms do come equipped with big ol' U.S. style hair dryers. We're talking ConAir 1200s. The downside is that for some odd reason they are plugged in behind a mirror on a wall directly behind the front door and unmovable. For this reason, it's dark and difficult to see what you're doing. There is a stand for resting the dryer, but nowhere to place your brushes and clips. There is also a wall-attached hose dryer in the bathroom should you want to use antiquated technology.

The bathroom has the full suite of soap, shampoo and conditioner - but not cotton swabs.

This hotel does have a gym. It's not as nice as the gym at the Landmark but it's serviceable. It has treadmills and free weights mostly.

These hotels are thought to be the best in their respective cities. The Landmark is nice but it's not five star. It will be interesting to see if it ups its game because a new Four Seasons is set to open in Baku soon.

So there you have it. I only stayed in three hotels, with the bulk of my stay at the Landmark Hotel. I hope you find this useful. Happy travels!

Azerbaijan

Alicia Morga Azerbaijan

This was the main question I received when I told people I was traveling to Azerbaijan. I usually replied, "It's near Turkey," but the truth is that it borders Russia, Georgia, Armenia, Iran and the Caspian Sea.

So why Azerbaijan, the Land of Fire? Well, I was invited by the U.S. State Department to share my experiences as a female entrepreneur with women around the country.

When I landed in Azerbaijan, cultural attaché Chris Jones picked me up at the airport and immediately handed me a cell phone and a large packet. I felt like I had parachuted into a scene in Mission Impossible.

He explained the schedule - I would be meeting with groups of young women, female entrepreneurs, and media throughout the country for ten days.

And with that, we were off. We started in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.

Alicia Morga Baku
Alicia Morga Baku Hotel

Baku can be deceiving. On the surface it looks like any major city. It's full of big expensive cars and is very secular. You won’t see many women covered up there. It even has a few bars - which foreigners mostly frequent.

When I first decided to travel to Azerbaijan I didn't know much about the country and was imagining something akin to news feeds about Afghanistan, so when I found myself in Baku I was relieved. It looked a lot like San Francisco, nestled next to the water.

Then we went on the road. I traveled to Ismayilli, Seki (pronounced Sheki), Ganja (the 2nd largest city in the country behind Baku), Shirvan, Guba, Kachmaz and then back to Baku for several more days.

When we traveled to the regions outside of Baku I begin to understand that Azerbaijan is not what it seems on the surface. It is a Muslim country that speaks Azerbaijani and is oil rich, but in the regions there is no avoiding the fact that it was once ruled by the Soviet Union and has a large uneducated populace (especially women).

In Ismayilli, a mountain town, I spoke to an eager crowd of young girls in a crumbling building with no heat in 40 degree weather.

Alicia Morga Azerbaijan merji shorbasi (lentil soup)
Alicia Morga Azerbaijan regions

In Seki, a television station invited me to tour the station and have dinner in advance of a television interview. The channel, I learned, is controlled by the state. A media specialist provided by the U.S. embassy coached me on what I could and probably should not say. That’s when I fully realized, while it’s a lovely country with great food, it’s still a dictatorship.

My schedule was jam-packed with speaking engagements and media interviews. I averaged four speaking engagements a day. I teased Chris that I was in his public speaking bootcamp.

The media interviews concerned me the most. Given that I didn't speak the language I was worried I would be understood and I know how difficult it can be to come across well in media here in the U.S. where I do speak the language. There were some hiccups but I managed them and even did a brief interview on their equivalent to Good Morning America.

Throughout the trip, though, I had a host of mixed emotions.

I found it difficult to talk about myself so much. Surprise, surprise! Perhaps everyone should be forced to tell their story several times a day for many days. The experience definitely made me see myself in a new way. At first I struggled with being myself, but the seemingly endless repeating of my story helped me to accept myself.

I learned that by being myself I could reach across cultural and language divides and connect. It was definitely easier with younger women - they were more open. But even the hard-looking older women were touched. I was connecting even when I couldn't tell from the looks on their faces. This I have to remember.

I had a translator, but sometimes it was terribly frustrating. I wanted to understand every little thing going on and I had to constantly nudge her for help. It was more difficult than I expected not understanding a word. I had to pay more attention to body language and facial expressions. I was hyper-aware. Which, of course, I'm good at but it turned up my already sensitive antennae and took tremendous energy.

I also felt pain. I could feel with every pore in my body how much women are repressed in the country - mainly by men but also by their own expectations for themselves. It’s a learned helplessness with which I am all too familiar. It triggered a deep empathy and anger in me that I could only express at night in my hotel room by crying.

It was subtle, but with every day the weight on my soul seemed to grow heavier. I know that sounds dramatic, but really, there’s no other way to describe it. Growing up I often felt like a guest in many homes and as such I never felt like I could truly be myself. And there were consequences to being myself. So an adulthood where I can more freely express myself has been a revelation.

My trip to Azerbaijan really put this into focus for me. It is a country that doesn’t have extreme poverty – no one is starving or homeless per se, but it is sapped of spirit. Meaning many people cannot be themselves or live the lives they want for themselves. This is a country where a man can punch a woman in the face with impunity, and the government jails people for criticizing the president. This suppression is evident everywhere.

It's a difficult atmosphere to describe unless you're used to being around depressed people. To make matters worse, few people smile – a remnant of Soviet dominance.

Talking to women, young and old, I learned how much they defeat themselves. They see no use in trying. There is a culture of can't - even in the face of real life examples of can.

There are successful women entrepreneurs in Azerbaijan. I was fortunate to meet many, including a woman who started the few and largest bookstores, a woman who opened a tea house for women, and even a woman who started her own bakery with another woman friend at the age of 52. Where at least one person has accomplished something, in my mind it means that more can follow - the path is forged and it's possible.

But I was frustrated to run up against mindsets that were either completely fixed and negative or unrealistically attached to Oprah-isms - dream it and it will come true - without moving to put in the work. Adding to the problem was the general fear of admitting to not knowing something and a very palpable fear of failure.

Though it's not difficult to see how that might flow from the top. Dictatorships are not exactly known for their creativity. It's hard to be creative when you're not allowed to fail. It’s easy to feel defeated when you’re surrounded by corruption.

Still I did my best to convey hope and inspire the women I met to pursue education and consider entrepreneurship.

Many of the women I met were eager to learn and welcoming. Young girls came up to me asking for pictures and easily draped their arms around me. One young girl went to hug me and stopped abruptly, catching herself and sucking in her breath like she had seen a ghost. “Is it okay to touch you?" she asked, "I know that Americans don't like to be touched." I laughed and gave her a big hug.

I was moved by the girls and women I met, and concerned for them, but I learned they were more concerned for me. The number one question I was asked at every stop and after ever speech and upon every meeting, without hyperbole, was are you married and do you have children.

Some also asked why I didn't wear make-up. For the record I do, but not as much as women there. Make-up, it seems, is essential to the main goal of snagging a man.

After my speeches older women crowded around me, grabbed my hands and very seriously advised that I go home and work on getting married. I said I would.

I already feel a bit like a freak that I'm not married and don't have children at my age, so the everyday reminder on the trip threatened to send me over the edge. But I was remarkably sanguine. I know I've been afforded an opportunity that these women are only now starting to imagine - an opportunity to forge a life of my own. Yes, getting married and having children no doubt enriches a life, but not having the choice surely diminishes it.

Going into the trip I was skeptical about what I could teach women there, but now I see even exposure to another experience of the world can make a difference. I hope I was able to make even a small one.

I’m still unpacking my trip, but overall I am glad I made the journey. It was at times uplifting and others, challenging, but I learned a lot.

I learned how to stand up and give a speech under all sorts of circumstance: when sick, hoarse, too hot, freezing, confused, in a different language. I learned that women are surprisingly similar everywhere. I learned that my fire still burns bright.

At Last – a quick guide to Buddhist Terms and Symbols

If you’re headed to Bhutan any time soon (and why wouldn’t you be?), it’s useful to have some terminology and understanding of Buddhist symbols under your belt. Below is a quick summary of key terms and symbols.

Glossary

Dharma = the teachings of the Buddha
Dorji = thunderbolt scepter
Druk= dragon
Chorten = a stupa where sacred relics are enshrined
Bon = precursor to Buddhism, an animistic religion
Dzong = fortress or a castle
Kanjur= the translated words of the Buddha
Lama= spiritual teacher
Rinpoche= means “precious jewel,” a term used to refer to a highly learned teacher
Stupa = structure built to house religious relics
Tenpa= Buddha
Thanka= sacred or religious paintings or scroll
Trulku= term used for an enlightened or a highly realized being

Symbols

Precious Umbrella (duk)

Precious Umbrella

 

Preserves beings from illness and negative forces

Endless Knot (pelgibeu)

Endless Knot

 

Represents the union of wisdom and compassion

White Conch (dungkar)

White Conch

 

Represents the melodious sound of the dharma teachings

Lotus Flower (pema)

Lotus Flower

 

Symbolizes the purity of mind, body and speech

Golden Fish (sernga)

Golden Fish

 

Represents a state of fearlessness without drowning in the ocean of suffering

Golden Wheel (khorlo)

Golden Wheel

 

Symbolizes the wheel of the Buddha’s doctrine

Vase of Treasure (bumpa)

Vase of Treasure

 

Represents long life, wealth and prosperity

Victory Banner (gyeltshen)

Victory Banner

 

Represents the victory of the Buddhist doctrine over harmful forces

Bumbling in Bhutan

One afternoon after lunch in Bhutan, I hiked through rice fields with my tour group (six of us) on our way to the fertility temple. When Namgay, our guide, reached the normal hike access point he noticed that the formerly dirt road was being prepared for paving (Bhutan is changing rapidly – go soon!). Below you can see how they pave the roads – they line the road with rocks and then literally smash the rocks by hand before pouring a mix on top of the rock to create a paved road.

Alicia Morga Bhuan

As a result of the new road our route was diverted through the back yard of a local farmer. Namgay lead the group through the farmer’s fields that were arranged in steps, with a bit of an incline between the various field levels. I, always the eager hiker, was right on Namgay’s heels.

Then suddenly, I wasn’t. I had stepped on what looked like dried mud but ended up being a hole. I fell down the hole which then gave way to the side of the hill and I went tumbling down the hillside. It all happened in slow motion. I remember thinking after the first roll that given the pitch, I was not going to come to a stop, so I told myself to try and find something to hold onto growing on the side of the hill. I reached with one hand and grabbed onto a plant full of thorns and it ripped through my hands. With my other hand I was tucking my Nikon SLR into my stomach like a game-winning football.

I knew there was a switchback of some width somewhere below me and I would most likely come to a stop there, but I wasn’t quite sure when it would be. I was also hoping the switchback was wide enough to capture my fall without sending me down the next portion of the hill.

Sure enough, I ended up on my butt on the switchback. I instantly sprung to my feet clutching my camera. As I was falling, I could hear the group shouting in dismay.

When my fall was broken I heard, “Are you okay?”

“I’m fine, I’m fine!” I said and started hiking back up the switchback.

I could not stop and indulge their cries of concern. I wanted everyone to continue as if nothing had happened. Namgay saw my hands and arms were bleeding and offered to clean them but I wouldn’t let him. I just needed to keep walking. Our other guide, Matt, wanted to see the damage, but I pushed him off, too.

Growing up, I played a lot of sports and one of the first things you learn is to “shake it off.” Meaning, tough it out and get on with the game; don’t show weakness. I guess now it’s a conditioned response.

So the group kept walking. I put my sunglasses on and walked with more distance between myself and Namgay. We were all walking along narrow byways in the rice fields single-file, and thinking no one could see them, tears started streaming down my face.

I swiped at my tears and started to cry in earnest. I was definitely in shock from the fall, but really my ego was bruised. And not just from the fall. I was on this trip because I had just sold my company – an experience I feel I bumbled my way through. I literally closed the deal and then got on a plane to Bhutan. Selling the company was the right thing but it hurt and like every other injury in a game, I had just tried to shake it off. Bhutan, Buddha wasn’t going to let me off so easily.

My sniffling eventually gave me away and a woman I was hiking with, Kim, touched my shoulder and said, “I’ve been there.”

She instinctively knew that I was crying about more than the fall. In fact, I was crying about all the falls I’ve made in the past few years, in the course of starting, growing and selling a business. The truly wonderful thing was that expressing my emotions and having someone acknowledge them was of instant comfort – way better than an ice-pack.

My tears drying, I looked across the magnificent valley and took in the incredibly hard-working farmers and the rice fields they were getting ready to prepare for the next planting – a process that begins with them ripping out old seed. I realized that this was my new beginning – that after every harvest comes a new season. And when all else fails, keep walking.

Bhutan

When I told friends I was headed to Bhutan, the common response was, “Where?” Bhutan is a small Buddhist country (population of approximately 700K) between India and Tibet.  It's also the place that has stolen my heart.

Bhutan was settled before the tenth century but is thought to have been inhabited before that time. A Tibetan lama Ngawang Namgyel unified the country in 1616 and named the country Druk Yul, or Land of the Thunder Dragon. The main languages spoken are Dzongkha, Sharchhop, Nepali and English. English is taught in schools. Health care and education are free, but not all citizens have access to them. Marriage traditionally happened as a result of "night hunting," where a man would seek out a woman and if he was still at her house in the morning, they were married. They were divorced when one of them moved out. Today, marriage licenses are granted. The land and assets of the family usually go to the females in the family and the women of Bhutan are said to enjoy more equality with men than in other Asian countries. The main export of Bhutan is hydro-electricity and Bhutan currently exports electricity to India in exchange for military resources.

The local currency is the Nu. There are no ATMs in Bhutan where foreigners can withdraw cash, only the locals can. Many of the hotels, however, can change money at their front desks. The Internet is available everywhere and in fact you will often see monks on their cell phones. The culture is conservative and modest dress is always advised. In addition, because it is a Buddhist country, visitors should not touch a person’s head and refrain from pointing, wearing shoes or putting their feet up in temples. Further, some temples require that both men and women wear collared shirts, so it’s a good idea to bring at least one. Finally, all visitors are required to have a local guide. 

I could go on and on. While it's a magical place, it's a country all the same with it's own share of issues. To get a good sense of the country, I highly recommend Beyond the Sky and the Earth: A Journey into Bhutan by Jaime Zeppa.

My local guide was Namgay Tshering of Namgay Adventure Travels . A more wonderful human being does not exist. I highly recommend him for any type of trip you might take to Bhutan. He knows everyone and can get you in everywhere.

Alicia Morga Bhutan Namgay

I traveled the north of Bhutan, starting in Paro. Here is a summary of my itinerary:

Day One: I flew from Bangkok to Paro, Bhutan via Druk Air (very limited flights into the country). I checked out the Drukgyel Dzong (a fortress built in 1649 to protect Bhutan from invading Mongols) and then checked into the Zhiwa Ling Hotel. Later that evening, I saw locals filming a movie at the hotel. The film industry is just starting to take off in the country and is considered a “hot” way to make money.

 

Alicia Morga Dzhong
Alicia Morga Zhiwa Ling Hotel

 

Day Two: I visited the Paro Dzong and Kitchu Lahkang (one of the first monasteries built to subdue the demon and oppressor of Buddhism). Out among the country homes of Paro it’s hard to miss the interesting décor. What is it? It’s a phallus. Yep – large penises everywhere you look. The symbol is very important in Bhutanese rituals and celebrations. It is thought to be a holdover from Bonism, Bhutan’s religion before Buddhism. It is also thought to be from a popular deity, Lam Drukpa Kunley (the “Divine Madman”), who had an eye for the ladies. While it is funny to see phalluses painted on homes and hung in doorways, some Buddhists argue that the practice has a deeper meaning: keeping the male ego in check.

Alicia Morga Bhutan phallus

Day Three: I drove to Timphu (about a 1.5 hour trip) and stayed at the Taj Hotel. Timphu is the capital and considered the big city of Bhutan – it has about 40,000 people. There was a ton of construction going on and you can really see here how quickly the country is changing.

Did you know that smoking is banned in Bhutan? So is advertising. The country also doesn't have a single traffic light. They tried putting one up in Thimphu (the capitol) but it was ineffective so they took it down. They now have a traffic cop in Thimphu.

Alicia Morga Thimpu Traffic Cop

You can tell the Bhutanese by their traditional dress (required by the government – ghos for men and kiras for women). I’m in a full kira with a short silk jacket called a toego and my waist is tied with a kera below. The government just allowed women to start wearing a half-kira (where the skirt only comes to the waist) to save women time dressing in the morning. The rest of the city was full of Indian laborers who do most of the construction work and don’t wear traditional dress. Thimpu is also the site of Bhutan’s only golf course – all nine holes of it. Golf is an increasingly popular sport in Bhutan (but still behind archery – the country’s main sport) and argyle socks are all the rage.

Alicia Morga kira

Day Four: I hiked along Thimphu Chuu and then on to Cheri Goemba (built in 1620, it’s where the first monk body was established). Later that night I went into town and ate at the city’s only pizza parlor. After, I checked out a bit of Bhutanese television, courtesy of the Bhutan Broadcasting Service (BBS). I was particularly interested because I have wanted to visit Bhutan ever since I saw a 60 Minutes episode on the country when I was young. I remember that at the time, 60 Minutes noted that Bhutan was a country without television. I thought to myself, “What kind of country doesn’t have television?” and promised myself I would find out one day. The country didn’t open up to travelers or foreigners until the mid-1970s. Television, via satellite, began to sneak in around the 1990s and the kingdom didn’t make it’s official television debut until 1998. Today, television is pretty regulated. While visitors see a whole host of cable shows in their hotels (did you know there is an Indian Judge Judy?), most locals do not. While Buddhist philosophy is based on adaptation and acceptance, it will be interesting to see how television and it’s growing encroachment will affect the country.

Here is a local grocery store open late into the night and where you would cook - a farmhouse kitchen.

Alicia Morga Bhutan Grocery Store
Alicia Morga Bhutan Kitchen

Day Five: I shuttled to Dochu La (La means pass) en route to Punakha. In Punakha I stayed at the Meri Puensum Hotel (while spartan, it is currently the best hotel in the area). At the top of the pass, I visited the 108 chortens and tried Yak cheese. The cheese is pretty hard so locals suck on it for about an hour until it’s soft enough to chew. I couldn’t get past a few licks. Apparently, though, yak cheese is becoming popular in the gourmet world.

Because I made good time, I hit the Punakha Dzong. A gorgeous temple with the largest Buddha I had ever seen. Though, it should be noted that Bhutan is currently building The World’s largest Buddha (it will be larger than the Buddha in Hong Kong). Here is a picture of it underway.

Alicia Morga Punakha Dzong
Alicia Morga Buddha Construction

In the temple I spun many prayer wheels. The custom is to spin them clockwise. And some folks spin them all day.

Alicia Morga Bhutan Prayer Wheels
Alicia Morga Bhutan Prayer Wheel Monk

In the afternoon it was a hike to the Chimmi Lhakhang temple. It is devoted to the god of fertility, the Divine Madman. Those wanting children visit the temple, receive a blessing and choose their child’s name. There are only about 80 names total in all of Bhutan and the names can be for a male or female. I was blessed by a monk at the temple. He tapped my head with a 500-year old phallus carved by the Drukpa Kunley.

Day Six: I hiked to Chorten Nebu (built in 1650 and was the winter monastery for monks). Next to the monastery is an orphanage that my guide, Namgay Tshering, personally supports. The boys were exceptionally polite and extremely appreciative of the gifts Namgay brought. They are pictured below trying on our sunglasses.  

Prayer flags are everywhere the wind blows. The wind whips through the flags and carries the prayers of those who put up the flags to the heavens. This flag has a Wind Horse at the center which represents good luck.

Alicia Morga orphanage
Alicia Morga Prayer Flag

Day Seven: I shuttled back over Dochu La back to Paro. I stopped at the pass to see if the Himalayas were visible. While it was a nice day, there was just enough cloud cover to prevent a proper look. Back in Paro, I checked in at the Uma Hotel.

This is a Buddha that has recently been painted. The painter brought the Buddha, which is hollow inside, to a monastery to have it filled with rolled up prayers. Once it is, he can finish by painting the face.

Alicia Morga Blindfolded Buddha

Day Eight: I hiked to one of Bhutan’s most famous sites, the Takstang Monastery, also known as The Tiger’s Nest. It’s a steep hike, made just a bit tricky in parts by the sheer cliff you walk alongside, but a satisfying one. After, I had a traditional Bhutanese lunch at the tea house which is located half-way up on a ridge that looks across to the Tiger’s Nest.

Alicia Morga Bhutan's Tiger Nest

The country is growing and infrastructure is under construction, but they have plenty of ways to get around, including suspension bridges.

Alicia Morga Bhutan Bridge

The main thing, though, in Bhutan is to just be patient.

Alicia Morga Bhutan Tea

Day Nine: I participated in a prayer flag ceremony and then bid everyone goodbye through serious tears. It is truly the first time in my travels that I did not want to return home. There is so much more to report from my trip. The above is just a very high level summary and I am still unpacking all my experiences. But suffice it to say, Bhutan is a beautiful country with magnificent people and it will forever be in my heart.

Quick facts for those who might visit soon:

Patagonia - Argentina & Chile

Alicia Morga Buenos Aires

I flew from San Francisco to Buenos Aires by way of Miami and spent a few beautiful days in the city.

Alicia Morga Color

 

One of the women I was traveling with received fake money as change from a taxi driver. The small airport outside of BA we went to for our flight to Patagonia had a two hour pilot strike and the crowd almost rioted. It's a colorful place.

Alicia Morga Helsingfors

From BA we made our way to Helsingfors. A beautiful lodge out in the middle of nowhere.

 

Alicia Morga Laguna Azul

We went on an amazing hike to Laguna Azul.

Alicia Morga Perito Moreno

We were there for two days and then traveled on to El Calafate. We stayed at Los Notros and visited the glacier, Perito Moreno.

Alicia Morga Explora

We spent two nights in El Calafate and then we traveled to the granddaddy of Patagonia resorts: Explora.

Alicia Morga French Valley

We hiked everywhere, including French Valley - seemingly always in sight of the Torres del Paine.

 

Alicia Morga Quincho

We ate amazingly well. 

Alicia Morga Hiking

And hiked some more. I even made it to the Torres before Patagonia's notorious micro-climates swept in and made the peaks difficult to see.

Alicia Morga Explora View

A more beautiful place I have never seen.

Some travel tips:
The water is safe to drink from the tap. The water there is amazing. Dollars are accepted most everywhere. El Calafate is really the only touristy place with shopping. The area is about 50-1000m above sea level. There are internet cafes and Explora has Wi-Fi. Finally, pack layers. Patagonia is known for having four seasons in a day!

We returned home via a flight from Punta Arenas to Santiago, Chile.

I didn't get to spend much time in Santiago but here are suggestions for the city:
Cerro Santa Lucia has great views of the city. The Mercado Central is the place to get seafood. The Plaza de Armas is the heart of the city and you can see the Cathedral and Paseo Huerfanos (large avenue full of shops). The Natural History Museum is also in the Plaza de Armas. The presidential palace, La Moneda is also recommended.

As for what to eat - try Chilean empanadas, pastel do choclo (Chilean hot dogs - try Domino on Huerfanos). Also try Cafe Paule on Huerfanos for Once or tea time. Other neighborhoods to check out are Nuñoa and Las Londes.

Safe travels!