Tuesday, April 30, 2013

It's almost Cinco de Mayo, and I've got two things on my brain.  First, with all my April travels, I haven't baked in awhile, so I've been itchin' for the kitchen.  The second thing is margaritas because I love holidays that give me an excuse to make a batch.

Recently I saw a post on iambaker that satisfies both of these cravings - margarita cupcakes!  To make my day even better, the recipe is made from a modification of a boxed cake mix.  HOORAY!  The cupcakes are tequila lemon cake and the topping is a lime buttercream with salt!  Drooling right now...

For the cake:

  • 1 box lemon cake mix (but ignore the directions on the back)
  • 4 eggs
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1/4 cup tequila
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.  Combine all of the ingredients in a stand mixer until smooth.  Fill cupcake liners 3/4 full.  Bake for 18 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.  Super simple, right?

For the buttercream:
  • 1 box (1 lb) confectioners sugar
  • 1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 1/2 tsp lime zest
  • 1/8 tsp kosher salt
  • 3 tbsp lime juice
  • 1-2 tbsp milk or half and half
Cream together ingredients, adding milk to achieve your consistency preference.  Pipe on cupcakes and garnish with more kosher salt, lime zest, sugar crystals, and lime slice.  I think, based on my piping results, I need a little more practice with the ruffle tip!

Posted on Tuesday, April 30, 2013 by Julie

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Sunday, April 28, 2013

As if trekking up to see Mt. Everest a little over a week ago wasn't enough, today I finished the inaugural Nike Women's Washington D.C. half marathon.  After having a good time finishing the popular San Francisco race last October, I didn't hesitate to enter myself in the lottery for the new one in D.C. - fun and convenient!  Plus, who wouldn't want to earn another Tiffany & Co. finisher's necklace?
The race course is perfect, blending some of the best parts of the downtown area and minimizing the hills.  For people traveling to D.C., the course runs past all of the major monuments and D.C sites, so it's a tour and a race all rolled into one!
Packet pickup and the expotique were located in historic Georgetown just down the street from the Niketown, where you could pick up exclusive race gear and find your name on the banner attached to the side of the building.  What a fun idea!
It was an early morning, waking up at 4:45am to get ready and take metro into town.  The energy was high even at 6:00am.  I met up with a few girls from work, and we all headed to the corrals together, then it was time to run at 7am!

I'll confess that I didn't train a single mile for this race, and it probably wasn't the best idea to choose to "carb load" with Panda Express the night before, so I shouldn't be surprised that I started cramping up around mile 7.  And once you start walking, your legs just turn into giant tree trunks.  I tried to run as much as I could for the remainder of the race, enlisting the help of some Mumford & Sons music, just to massage my muscles and get some blood flowing, but this race ended up being my worst half marathon finishing time.  Hey, at least I wasn't last and I didn't get picked up by the "loser cruiser," the bus that collects people who won't finish before the allotted race time.  And I still got to see this at the end of the finishing chute:

Posted on Sunday, April 28, 2013 by Julie

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Friday, April 26, 2013

Sometime earlier this year, my friend and I were talking about planning a trip together where we would meet up somewhere in the world - she was coming from Cambodia, I was coming from D.C.  In one of our conversations, she said, "What do you think about Nepal?"  To which I replied, "I've never really thought about Nepal."  Of course, when you're a planner like me, I dove right into researching options.  With my New Years resolution hanging over my head to take a photo of myself in five interesting places, Nepal sounded perfect because a photo in front of Mt. Everest could easily be one of those five.  But, if you know anything about me, while I feel that I'm quite adventurous, I'm definitely not recognized for being "outdoorsy," despite growing up in the Pacific Northwest.  So, when searching for Everest options, I wanted to find the shortest amount of trekking possible.

My research led me to Intrepid Travel's Everest in Full Picture - Basix group tour, a 4-day trek out from Lukla to Namche Bazaar where you can see the top of Mt. Everest from three different viewpoints.  Compared to the 15-day roundtrip base camp alternative, this trek seemed like a breeze!  We signed up and I started to gather all of my supplies for my first multi-day hike ever.  I went to REI thinking I needed to buy one of those huge backpacks, and after describing the hike to the salesperson in the backpack department, he just looked at me funny and explained that I only needed a school backpack sized bag.  Well, we compromised and I got one of the bigger daypacks because there was no way I would wear the same pair of pants for 5 days!  Here are some of the other trek-based things I packed/bought, and whether or not I actually used them:
  • Camelback (3L) bag and bladder - removed the bladder from the bag and stuck it in my camera backpack.
  • Treking conveniences:  trail food, biodegradable TP, sanitary wipes, hand sanitizer - YES!  No toilet paper is ever provided anywhere, nor soap, so all of this was used!
  • Water purification tools: UV sanitizer and iodine tablets (backup), plus extra batteries - there was bottled water for sale everywhere on the trail, so you didn't need to bring purifiers if you didn't want to, though not sure what the availability of bottled water was beyond Namche Bazaar
  • Solar iPhone/iPad charger - I used this once to charge my phone, but ended up paying for a full charge (200 Nps.) of my iPad in Namche at our guesthouse
  • Packable down jacket - fortunately it was warm enough I didn't need this, but good to have and compact/lightweight so didn't feel I needed to leave it behind.
  • Waterproof lightweight rain jacket and pants - used the jacket on one sprinkle event and when it got windy and I was cold because I was sweaty
  • Dry bag for electronics - ended up just being a storage bag because it didn't rain enough
  • Non-cotton long sleeve shirts - used all of them because they don't dry in the cold weather
  • Yoga pants - these worked really well for the hikes, just warm enough and stretchy
  • Thermal gloves - used them once on a windy/cool day
  • Silk thermals - didn't need to use because my friend got me a loaner subzero sleeping bag, but didn't feel bad having them in my bag as a backup
  • Body glide for the potential chafing - always good to have!
  • Blister prevention and repair - good to have, but fortunately my shoes behaved
  • Microfiber towel - showers are a challenge, but worth it, so you need a compact towel
  • Hydration powders - not needed
  • Backpack waterproof covers - used
  • Hat(s): baseball cap and winter cap - used the baseball hat for the hike and the winter cap at nights, especially when I couldn't dry my hair after showers
  • Flip flops for tea house bathrooms - used and definitely needed because the showers were not ideal
  • Physical book - my iPad worked up to Namche because it wasn't too cold
  • Inflatable mattress pad (Thermarest) - this was my luxury and I loved it.  The guesthouse beds are just plywood with a very thin mattress.  Having an extra layer of cushion was fantastic.
  • Leatherman tool - didn't use it, probably because I think it fell out of my bag on the trail on Day 2
  • General antibiotic - didn't need it, fortunately, but it's good to know what I learned: Nepal is a Cipro-resistant country, so pack a Z-pack or two (Zithromax)
  • Acetazolamide for altitude sickness prevention - took it and had no problems, not sure if I would have had problems whether I took it or not.
  • Some thin rope and carabiners - I left these with my luggage back at the hotel
The day before we were scheduled to depart, our tour group met at the Kathmandu Guest House where Intrepid's Nepal office is located.  We met our guide and talked about the schedule for the upcoming days and last minute packing strategies.  Our flight was one of the first to depart in the morning, so we kept it an early night, mainly with me trying to pare down my baggage weight to a combined 15 kg - my camera equipment was not helping!  

The next morning, we were picked up at 5am and taken to the Kathmandu Domestic Airport to catch our plane to Lukla.  I took a Dramamine just in case because I had heard sometimes the flights can get rough with the mountain winds.  We were told to do whatever we could to get on the left side of the plane because that is the side with the best views of the Himalayas.  I also wanted to sit right behind the cockpit so I could see the approach into Lukla, which is a small, uphill landing strip carved into the mountainside.  The flight was very quick, maybe 45 minutes, and we were finally at our trek starting point, along with many other trekking groups with various destinations, mostly base camp.  

After a quick breakfast at a guesthouse in Lukla, we were off on our short 3-4 hour hike, mostly downhill, to Phakding.  We arrived around mid-day, and I opted to take a nap (due to lack of sleep the night before) rather than do a strenuous hike around the area.  That night, we gathered in the main room and played cards before making it an early night to facilitate getting up early the next day, which was going to end up being the worst day of the four, physically.

Day 2 kicked my butt.  There's really no other way to put it.  We had about 4 hours of undulating pathway - uphill, downhill, back up, back down - that included four cable bridges across the rushing glacial waters coming down from the Himalayas, each bridge getting progressively higher.  After that final bridge, I was faced with my 2 hour nightmare - all uphill to Namche Bazaar.  I struggled to take a photo that accurately captured the trail conditions, but suffice it to say, I felt really pathetic taking a break to catch my breath, with my 15 lb daypack, when the local porters were beating me up the hill carrying upwards of 200 lbs of goods (primarily beer, soft drinks, canned fruit juice, and fruit for foreigner consumption) on their backs with only a head strap for support.  You haven't seen anything until you see a man carry a metal door or a load of lumber up a hill - jaw dropping!  That whole ascent I looked forward to any sort of animal train to go by, preferring the donkeys over the yakows (half yak/half cow) because the number of donkeys was maybe 10-20 per train vs. 3-5 of the yakows.  Pack animal trains meant we had to stand on the uphill side and wait for them to pass.  Finally, after 7 hours (including lunch), we made it to about 11,300 feet to our destination at Namche Bazaar.  While I got settled and took a shower before the hot water was gone, my friend and our other group member scouted the area and came back with good news...we were booked for foot massages at the one licensed massage therapist in the small town.  We are such trekking brats, I know!

The morning of Day 3, our goal was to ascend some more to reach a small hotel on a ridge above Namche.  Before we hiked that trail, we went above the town just 25 minutes to a viewpoint where I was able to get my first glimpse of Mt. Everest.  I don't know what I was expecting, but Everest wasn't as large as one would imagine.  Perhaps it's because it was mostly hidden, except for the rounded peak, behind a ridge (that's actually a mountain - Nuptse), or maybe it's because Lhotse to the right, at 27,940 feet, is only 1,100 feet shorter and makes Everest that much less impressive.  Regardless of first impressions, it's still unbelievable to be in the vicinity of the world's tallest mountain!  From the viewpoint, I could see the trail that leads trekkers to base camp.  I could also see the incredibly steep trail that we were meant to take to reach the next viewpoint.  Since I was happy with my photographs and the views from higher up would not differ much, I opted to not slow the group down on that 1-2 hour climb and return to the guesthouse.  It actually worked out well because it gave me time to look through my photographs and make sure I got all the shots I wanted before we left for the downhill trek back towards Lukla.    By the way, we were incredibly lucky that it had rained the night before in Namche so that we got beautiful blue skies in the morning.  No other day had better skies than the morning when it all counted, when we saw Everest.
Mt. Everest with snow blowing from the peak (mid-photo, behind the ridge - Nuptse - and to the left of Lhotse)


When everyone was back at the guesthouse, we gathered our gear and returned to the same trail we ascended the day before.  It's interesting because you would think that an hour of going downhill would be really easy, but you start to realize that it's actually quite challenging stabilizing your downward steps on the rocky path and that your muscles right above your knees get tired after awhile.  We pushed through our original destination for the night of Monjo and ended up in Benkhar to shorten our final day's journey by about a half hour.  The guesthouse was family run, and I caught the attention of their toddler granddaughter who wanted me to play with her as I sat close to the wood stove in an attempt to dry my hair after my shower (little house of the prairie style!).      

Our final day of trekking included passing the spot of our first night, Phakding, then quickly remembering how the majority of our first day of hiking was downhill, which means uphill on the way back.  Our guide played a trick on me when we stopped for lunch, saying we had another hour to go, which was met by my playful grumbling, but very quickly after lunch we rounded a corner and I spotted the white entrance gate to the trail at the top of the next hill.  Such a welcome sight!  Our last night in Lukla was fun because we finally got to let loose and not worry about what was in store for us, physically, the next day.  We went to the fake Starbucks and enjoyed our first espresso drinks in a long time, then went to the Irish Pub below the Starbucks for some happy hour specials and a couple games of very poorly played pool!

Of course we couldn't let loose completely because we had a very early morning wake-up call in order to catch one of the first planes out of Lukla.  It's always better to travel in and out of Lukla in the morning because the weather is more stable and the winds are lighter, so I was told.  I was really happy to be heading back to Kathmandu because this non-outdoorsy girl wanted to return to the simple comfort and convenience of a hotel.  What are these simple comforts?

(1) Toilets - First trail toilet I encountered was a wood floor with three slats missing.  That's where I first started to question my sanity and my decision to do this trek!  They weren't all that bad, but I found it annoying that it was bring-your-own-TP everywhere and that the toilets don't accept paper, so you have to put everything in a bin next to the toilet.
(2) Indoor heating - None of the guesthouses were heated.  Thank goodness my friend knows people who are outdoorsy and loaned me a super warm packable sleeping bag that would have probably cost me over $300 at REI.
(3) Hot water - most guesthouses have hot water available, but at a price.  And there are no guarantees that the hot water will last for everyone, since often it is solar heated.

The end of the trek was also the point in my India/Nepal travels where I was also missing some of the simple comforts of home:
(1) Ice - I hadn't had a piece of ice in almost 2 weeks because of water contamination concerns
(2) Not worrying about food I was consuming - I wanted a big ol' salad and a bowl of fruit by this point.  Honestly, though, I didn't have an issue with most of the food in Nepal.  Most of the options were pretty bland (e.g. noodles, rice, veg), which works well for trekking and for my stomach/taste preferences.  I'm pretty sure that at some point I consumed the milk products of non-cows (water buffalos in India and yaks - technically naks - or yakows in Nepal).
(3) Brushing my teeth without bottled water
(4) Soda that tastes the way it's supposed to taste

I'm sure I'm missing others on the list, but now that I've recovered back at home and dropped back into my routine, some of the memories of discomforts and inconveniences have slipped my brain. I've also distanced myself in time and mileage to have crazy thoughts in the back of my mind of going back and trekking in the Annapurna foothills...always planning, I tell ya!

Posted on Friday, April 26, 2013 by Julie


Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Kathmandu is an interesting city.  When flying in, be sure to grab a window seat because you never know if the haze will lift and you'll get a glimpse of the spectacular Himalayan range behind the hills that surround the city.  Navigating the airport is a challenge, not only because the customs/on-arrival visa process is lengthier than one would expect, but once you leave the airport, you are besieged by "helpful" locals who want to grab your bag and direct you to taxis that lack any sort of uniformity and are often the most stripped down late model cars you have ever seen!  Dear Kathmandu, the 1980s called and they want their cars back.  Be prepared for your friendly bag handler to be waiting with his hand out for a tip.  Taxi costs are very negotiable in the city, and I'll talk more about that, but expect the fees to be around 600-700 Nrs. to a hotel in the city.  Also be prepared for the wildest taxi ride you've ever taken!  What I quickly learned was that, what seemed like 90% but more like 70% of the roads are torn up and under construction - apparently a stalled project started by the former Prime Minister that (maybe because of corruption) probably won't be finished for a long time.  So when my taxi driver took a turn off the main road into a single lane, unpaved back road full of pot holes, you can imagine my extreme concern.  I think he was most likely just taking a short cut to get around the congestion on the good roads.  Finally, we reached the hotel in one piece - nothing unique, just a Radisson that was recommended by a friend in the U.S. Embassy, but is apparently one of the "ritzy" places.

My friend wasn't due to arrive until the next afternoon, so my first night in the city was spent relaxing, preparing for our upcoming mountain trek - trying to get my two bags down to a combined 15 kg weight limit, and going to bed early in anticipation of an early wake up call.  Before I left the U.S., my mom connected me with a photographer in the Seattle area who is very familiar with the India/Nepal region, as he leads small photography tours there several times a year.  I spent a few hours with Peter Carey talking about his experiences and how to strategize for getting positioned to capture some great photographic opportunities.  One of the suggestions he had was to make sure I made it up to the Swayambhunath Stupa at sunrise.  This stupa is one of the two major Buddhist stupas in Kathmandu city center, and getting there at sunrise is advantageous for many reasons.  First, it's one of the photographer's dream times of day for lighting.  Second, in the morning is when you get less tourists and more locals, so you get a more realistic experience.  In this case, sunrise is the time when the Buddhist monks come to the stupa for daily meditation and when the local people are out catching their morning exercise and performing their devotional activities, circling the stupa in a clockwise direction.  The scene I witnessed in the morning was infinitely more interesting than when I visited the stupa again later in the day with my friend.  And as a bonus, there was no entrance fee for foreigners early in the morning, nor were the chotski vendors out in force waiting to harass you.  I mentioned earlier about taxi bargaining.  I got a general idea of how much it should cost for a one-way trip up to the stupa from my hotel doormen, but since I knew I needed a way to get back, I was able to bargain with the taxi driver for a roundtrip plus waiting deal.  Total cost was a little higher than normal, which was expected because of less taxis competing for my fare at that hour - total 1000 Nps. or around $12.  This negotiated exclusive taxi for the day arrangement was one I ended up doing for most of my subsequent transportation needs.   (Note: I'm not sure why some of my photographs are uploading with a lot of "noise" in them.  I swear they are much clearer in my Lightroom library.)

I spent the rest of the morning, before my friend's arrival, wandering around the Thamel district.  This is a prime location for tourists, as it is where the majority of the trekking and outdoor adventure tour companies are based, there are many budget friendly accommodations, and the streets are lined with souvenir shops, small food establishments, and bars.  I was happy because I found a t-shirt for my nephew who had specifically requested something with a yeti on it.  Always remember to bargain for things!  After my friend arrived, we went out and did another bargaining arrangement with a taxi to take us back to Swayambhuynath, then drive us across town to the other major stupa complex: Boudhanath Stupa.

Our city tour had to be paused after this day because we left the next morning for Lukla to start our trek to Namche Bazaar to see a Mt. Everest viewpoint.  When we returned to Kathmandu, we headed back to Boudhanath for lunch because there are several rooftop eateries that allow you to relax and observe the activity around the temple.  This was another suggestion by the Seattle photographer because it provides a different perspective on the popular tourist site.  After lunch and a little shopping, we spent the rest of the afternoon trying to figure out Durbar Square - former site of a royal palace complex with great examples of centuries old Nepalese architecture.  I say "figuring out" Durbar Square because when we got there, all of the ticket booths were strangely closed due to some sort of strike, so we didn't have a map or guide brochure to tell us what we were seeing - but we saved 750 Nps. each!  Fortunately, we were approached by a man who explained that he was a licensed guide (showed us the license) and said he can give us a tour and we can pay him what we think it was worth.  To be honest, we were approached by another tour guide before this one, but instead of showing us his license, he started hitting on my friend and she shooed (more like verbally shoved) him away quickly.  My point is, you can potentially be approached in one way or another.  I don't know if this is a good or bad thing, but we happened to be in Durbar Square on on of the days when they were doing animal sacrifices, so we had to be mindful of pools of blood around some of the religious statues.  Yuck!  Also, my friend was not nice in saying "hey, look over there" when she knew I had no interest in seeing the corpse of a decapitated water buffalo.  Thanks, friend!  

Once we had our guide, things became more clear.  He walked us through the major temples and pointed out interesting details, including the tantric carvings on a fertility temple.  At one stop, we went to an interior courtyard of a building where our guide explained that a young girl lives there.  She is the Kumari Devi, or the Living Goddess, and is believed to be the incarnation of the Hindu Goddess Kali, Siva's wife.  This girl, I believe at the age of 3 or 4, was chosen from a Buddhist family based on horoscopes and tests to see how she reacts to horribly violent acts (e.g. animal sacrifices) - the true goddess is calm and indifferent to the acts. She was taken to Kathmandu and raised as the Goddess, where she is kept in the upper floors of this building for her childhood, homeschooled with no friends, dressed up in traditional Goddess attire, and never allowed to set foot on the ground, lest she lose her devine powers.  At certain times of the day, she will come to a window in the courtyard to look down on the people who have come to worship her.  Once this girl completes her first menstruation, she is no longer the Goddess and is returned to her family.  As the former Kumari, it is believed that she is bad luck when it comes to marriage, so the remainder of her life she will remain alone and most likely devote herself to public service while living off of the lifelong monthly stipend she receives.

There are other sights in Kathmandu, some outside the city center, but we ran out of time to visit them, or in the case of Pashupatinath, my friend had no interest in observing bodies being ritually cremated out in the open by their grieving families.  Confession - by "running out of time" I mean we had to make it back to the place where we had booked our post-Himalayan trekking massages.  If there's one thing I love about Asia, and don't turn down an opportunity to do, it's cheap foot massages!

Posted on Wednesday, April 24, 2013 by Julie

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