Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Real Places of Christmas: Bethlehem, Nazareth, and the modern Holy Land

Hello all! Being that it’s that time of year again, I’ve decided to make a short post concerning the historical places associated with the original Christmas—the birth of Jesus Christ, founder of the Christian religion. I’ll also briefly comment on the status of Christians in the Holy Land today.

Staring down at the glazed, broken tiles of the Madaba Map, it is difficult to imagine that any of the places it portrays are real. The Map has an almost surreal quality to it, with fish jumping from millennia-old streams and classical columns holding up the disproportionate buildings. If the map had been drawn to scale, cities would stretch for hundreds of miles, and odd-looking sea vessels would be able to span the Mediterranean. To me it seemed almost laughable at first. Then something caught my eye—the dusty and barely visible Greek word Βηθλεέμ.


Like the founders of other major religions, such as the Prophet Mohammed, it is almost certain that Jesus Christ was a historical figure. However, the only real account of his life exists in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. This narrative begins with the story of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, a small town just south of Jerusalem. 

Christmas celebrates the birth of Christ. Therefore, it can be argued that Christmas started in Bethlehem. This event makes it one of the most important sites of Christian pilgrimage in the Holy Land.

I have always wondered why Christians in the Holy Land (modern Israel and its neighbors) are such a tiny minority. Historically, the Holy Land has been occupied at one time or another by Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and often more than one at a time. For centuries it was almost completely Christian. 

Today, though, it is almost completely occupied by Jews and Muslims, with Christians numbering less than 2% of the population in many places. Even that number is in danger of shrinking--soon, Christians might disappear completely from the land where Christianity was born. 

As it stands today, these are the primary sites of Christian pilgrimage: Bethlehem, where Jesus was born, Nazareth, where he grew up, and Jerusalem, where he died.

Sadly, I was not able to visit Bethlehem due to time constraints, but many Christian pilgrims still visit every year, especially around Christmas. However, many more are dissuaded from visiting because modern Bethlehem is located within the West Bank, a hotbed of violence between Israelis and Palestinians. 

The main churches are listed by UNESCO as endangered world heritage sites, and there are sporadic outbreaks of violence. Getting permission to visit is difficult. 

It is the sad but true situation that the Holy Land, sacred to Jews, Christians, and Muslims, has historically been a center for violence, and it certainly hasn't calmed down in the modern era. Regardless, I felt very safe during my time in the Middle East, and I hope that with the proper precautions, people continue to visit these amazing places. 

Anyway, the focus of pilgrimage to Bethlehem is the Church of the Nativity, a small church maintained by the even smaller Palestinian Christian community. The main body of the church covers a cave which traditionally marks the birthplace of Jesus. Of course, this is almost entirely speculation, as no one was around to mark the exact location of Jesus’ birth. Still, I think it is moving to realize that pilgrims have come here for almost two millennia, paying their respects to the birthplace of Christ.

Now I would like to briefly change gears. There has been a fair amount of Biblical scholarship that suggests the true location of the birth of Christ was not actually Bethlehem at all. Christmas may really have started in Nazareth. It is true that Jesus spends much of the Bible in and around Nazareth. Was that where he was born as well?

There are several things that make this interpretation seem reasonable to me. For one, the birth of Jesus is really the only event that takes place in Bethlehem. In the Bible, Jesus grows up in Nazareth and spends much of his adult life there. 

The writers of the Bible may have changed his birthplace to Bethlehem in order to symbolically establish his connection to King David, an ancestor of Jesus who was also born in Bethlehem. But ultimately, this mystery will probably never be resolved—and that’s okay. It’s the story of Christmas that counts.

Truly, walking up to the massive Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth, I could see the power of story in action. As often at monuments such as this, my neck was sore from looking almost permanently straight up. I shuffled along with the others, a healthy mix of pilgrims and tourists that exists at most sights in the Holy Land. Gradually we made our way inside.

“Whoa.” I let out a long exhale as I stepped into the interior of the church. The central hall was formed by two levels, one stacked upon the other, and both ornately decorated in the Roman Catholic tradition. The second level was a stream of color, containing row upon row of elaborate artworks donated by Christians of various nations. The first level was plain, but it seemed to naturally provide a sacred space that enveloped visitors in silence.

All of this crowned the central altar of the church, its most holy spot. But there was no altar. Instead there was a shallow pit, lit only by candlelight, from which vague chanting could be heard. This was the Grotto of the Annunciation, to many the holiest site in Nazareth. Soon I was at the edge of the pit, looking down. In it was the altar, the center of the church, in front of a small cave. I spent the next few minutes paying my respects in silence.

According to tradition, this cave is where the Angel Gabriel announced (Annunciation) to Mary that she would have a son, who would become Jesus. The Basilica over it was built at the same time as the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and is viewed by many as having equal importance. The Annunciation is really the first event in the story of Jesus Christ. 

Would it then, perhaps, be valid to say that Christmas began here? That, I suppose, is a matter of individual interpretation. Certainly Christmas can be traced back to real history and connected to real places. But whether you are a Christian, a historian, or merely curious, the true origin of Christmas is probably best left to faith.  

Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Story of India: Travel Talks

Hello everyone! Here's a short video of a talk I gave recently about my trip to India. For a little back story, in addition to this blog, I also give talks about my travels at senior homes and libraries around my area. This is the unveiling of my newest talk, based on my experiences in India this summer.

Friday, November 28, 2014

An Assault on the Senses?

What exactly is an assault on the senses? My senses certainly felt assaulted as I dashed through the backstreets of the city near the Shrine of Nizamuddin, very much focused on what I was doing, which was leaving where I was. The prospect of being killed has a tendency to sharpen your observational powers.  I took in everything, but I had time to process none of it.

Afterwards I could mull over my experience, remembering the shouts of shopkeepers in the alley, the fragrant purple petals strewn over the green Tomb of Amir Khusro, and the funny blue pen I used to hastily scribble down my name on the record of donors, more out of immediate necessity than any charitable spirit. But not in the moment. Right then I was overloaded with the cacophony of sounds, the brilliant spectrum of colors, and the feel of people pressing in from all sides, all swirling around like a vortex. I wanted none of it.

               Michael Wood, an eminent English historian and adventurer whom I idolize, is the first person I ever heard use the phrase “India is an assault on the senses.” He was not the last. Along with Slumdog Millionaire, the “sensory overload” concept has become so associated with India that it is the first thing many people think of when India is mentioned. I would have great difficulty recounting the number of people that came up and warned me about the assault on my senses, in one way or another, before I traveled there. A quick internet search will turn up a dozen blog posts and a half dozen more movie quotes that relate to this. Clearly it has been deeply ingrained in society by those who have traveled to India and returned to tell their tales. Thus, my point is not to drum into you that India will leave you feeling dizzy at times—it will. Instead, I want to pose a question about the supposed assault on the senses: is it actually true?  

               This is not by any means a new sentiment. The first Western traveler to reach the heart of India was Megasthenes, an ambassador of the Greeks that followed Alexander the Great. Upon arrival at India’s great imperial city, Patna, in the fourth century B.C., Megasthenes and his fellow Greeks were awestruck by the splendor of India. “I have seen the great cities of East,” he wrote. “I have seen the Persian Palaces of Susa and Echbatana, but this is the greatest city in the world1.”  

               Many Western travelers today, though, are struck by disturbing images and chaos, rather than beauty and splendor. However, that does not mean that the underlying cause is not the same. India is perhaps not as much an assault on the senses as on the sensibilities. Fresh travelers from America and Europe are shocked by how different and distinct India really is. Thus I personally do not think India is an assault on the senses—that implies an attack from the outside. India is simply so foreign that it is easy to be swept away. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that India yanks the rug out from under you. It is an attack from the inside.    

               There is joy to be found in the chaos. If I was ever overwhelmed by India, I found it helpful to remember that there are 1.2 billion people who live through it every day. Certainly if they can do it, I can too. It takes a bit of getting used to at first, but the good traveler eventually becomes accustomed to the extremes of India as well as its quirks. There is joy to be found because I think the only way to truly appreciate India is to step right into the middle of it. India is not the only place where there is still old world craziness—for me, Jerusalem and Cairo also come to mind. But there is a special charm to India—something that suggests it can absorb everything it finds useful while still maintaining an identity that is uniquely its own. That special kind of chaos is truly Indian.  

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Travel Presentation/Talk

Hey everyone. Sorry for not posting for so long. Lately, I have been focusing more on speaking engagements that I have ended up getting around town, and my blog has suffered as a result. I have also been working on a massive project for around five months that will soon be unveiled... but the point is, I will be trying to get back into the swing of things.
The presentation I crafted for speaking at local events is called 'My Travels,' and it covers the highlights of almost every country I have ever visited. During the talk, I share my very best (and funniest) travel stories and experiences. It is very entertaining as well as informative (in my opinion), and I try to give a good picture of the world as I see it. It is a little long, lasting for a little over an hour, so you don't have to watch the whole thing. Just give it a quick look if you are interested. You can find the presentation on YouTube by clicking here. Thanks!

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Longs Peak-A Photographic Odyssey

Hi guys! For those of you who want to see more fantastic Longs Peak photos, I've posted them on Google+. Sorry about not putting them on my site... Blogger is angering me right now. But you can still see them by clicking the link below.

Longs Peak--A Photographic Odyssey

Click the little arrows on either side of the screen to advance the photos. If you really like a photo, you can +1 it in the lower right hand corner. Enjoy!

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Inside the Great Pyramid of Giza-literally!

I scrape my head on the low roof as I enter, dropping my tiny flashlight. “Ow,” I mumble, annoyed. I search the ground for my flashlight As soon as I find it, I continue on.

               The grey, rocky tunnel continues for what seem like miles. As I climb further, I brace my hands against the rough hewn walls, carved thousands of years ago. Tiny wooden boards are placed on the floor so that you don’t slip. With the angle of the tunnel, a slip like that could mean death. I slowly make my way further downward, every step bringing me deeper into history. The path is lit by dim, flickering lights. I can only see a few feet in front of me. The walls of the tunnel are moist and slippery, as if they are wet. Or that could just be my palms.

               Ahead of me, the downward slope of the tunnel ends, and I can’t see what lies beyond. The tunnel is narrow here, enough to repel anyone with even the slightest claustrophobia. I make my way closer to the yawning opening. As I pass through, I gasp in awe. “The Grand Gallery,” I whisper.

               I am inside the Great Pyramid of Giza, built 4,500 years ago for the pharaoh. As king of Egypt, the pharaoh was placed to rest in these very tunnels. He was then supposed to be sealed off for the rest of eternity. He probably didn’t think that tourists would find their way inside.

               I turn on my flashlight and shine it at the farthest corners of the Gallery. Here, the tunnel gets much wider and slopes upward. The walls, formerly rough, are now as smooth as glass. They meet at the top of the hall to form a pyramid shape, 20 feet above our heads. The whole room is grandiose, fit for the Pharaoh. “Wow,” I say to myself.

               I start to climb higher, toward the Pharaoh’s burial chamber. I get ever more excited the closer I get. Everything looks just like I had imagined it. I search the left side of the Gallery for the secret passage discovered by archaeologists, but am unable to find it. I run my fingers along the stone benches that line the walls. I can see the end of the Gallery. Pretty soon, I am gripping the railing and heaving myself over the large stone slab that marks the end of the Gallery.

               The Pharaoh’s Chamber! It is a tall, boxy room with a low ceiling. A small fan putters away in the corner. Electrical lights flicker and hum noisily. Not quite the vision of grandeur that the name suggests! But I don’t care. I love the room anyway. This was where the pharaoh was buried! That’s what makes this place worth seeing.

               I begin to investigate the room with my tiny circle of light. Soon, I discover the small openings in the walls that have been termed the “air shafts” by archaeologists. They go all the way to the exterior of the pyramid, and may have served a religious purpose.  I also see the huge, broken sarcophagus that lies at the center of the room. I walk over to it. It is completely empty, and one corner is snapped off. Was this where the pharaoh was placed? Maybe.

               I enjoy the room of the Pharaoh for a few more minutes, all too aware that my time here is growing short. No, my time here is out. Taking one last look at the sarcophagus, I reluctantly turn and leave the chamber. Down through the Gallery I go. Down through the little opening in the wall. Back up through the Tunnel. Finally, I step out into the warm light of the Egyptian sun, out of the magic of the pyramid, and back into the real world.  


Sunday, September 16, 2012


Sorry for not posting this week guys. I've been pretty busy lately, and haven't had a chance to write any new material. Hope to be getting back to posting this Wednesday!

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Heart of Jerusalem-The Markets

The markets are really the beating, pulsing heart of Jerusalem. They are places where you can really take a few hours and lose yourself in the culture. If you’re willing to push through the crowds, and be harassed by a few vendors, you just might end up with a lifelong memory.


               I love to wander the backstreets of Jerusalem. At first, I wasn’t too excited about going down alleys when there were so many great historical sights nearby. But eventually, I realized that this was a great way to experience Middle Eastern Culture. This is where the real people of Jerusalem live, not just those people that put on a smile every day for tourists. Whether they’re bartering for rugs or buying a video game (yep, they have those too), the markets are the center of daily life in Jerusalem.

               My favorite part of the any market is the spice shop. The first time I walked into a spice shop, I was amazed. They only sell spices! There were hundreds of varieties. And I had spent my time thinking that spices came in a little red bottle labeled Tabasco! I quite enjoyed wandering my way through the pyramids of oregano, cinnamon, and red peppers, and taking in the rich aroma. And the color! There is an explosion of color such as you have never seen in your life! Reds, yellows, and greens abound everywhere you look.


               Another great experience I had in the markets was stopping at a local restaurant. But not just any restaurant—a pizza place! Another thing that you wouldn’t expect in the Middle East. Probably not a good idea (because we might have gotten horribly sick), but it ended up okay. It actually wasn’t bad pizza.
That’s why I enjoy the markets of Jerusalem. Here are a few more market pictures.
Strawberry fields, forever
Pork on a hook, anyone?
 A spice Mount, crowned by its own miniature Dome of the Rock
 Shops close up like lockers at night
Getting your greens
Who doesn't like corn on the cob?

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Treasury, Petra

The canyon walls press in on me like a vice. As I walk deeper into the dark and narrow corridor, I can see less and less sky. It gets darker a I wind my way further along the twisting path. I break into a run. The light gets brighter and brighter. At last, the dark canyon opens up, and I see it. “The Treasury,” I say breathlessly.  It was magnificent.

A few minutes later, we are seated at a table with our guide. He is no stranger to tourists, and he has positioned himself deliberately so that we can gaze at the Treasury over his head. “We are in Petra, the ancient capital of the Nabateans,” he says, even though we aren’t paying attention. “It is one of the most famous sites in Jordan.” We could tell, because the Treasury was mobbed with tourists. Other historical sites in Jordan could be practically empty, with just you and the wind. But I’m not thinking about any of this. I’m just gawking at the Treasury.

               The Treasury is carved into the side of a cliff. Light dances along its face like leaves rustling in the wind. The multicolored stone almost makes it blend in with the rock around.  It looks like a palace, even though it is merely a box on the inside.

               Camels are arrayed out in front of the Treasury, waiting to give eager tourists a ride. The sight of them in front the Treasury makes this place all the more Middle Eastern.

It is quite an amazing experience to see the Treasury for the first time. The ancients deliberately positioned it at the end of the Siq, a long canyon, to look even more impressive. After you come out of the winding, narrow, chasm, and see the Treasury in all of its glory, it looks almost magical.
               We get up and walk over to the Treasury. I want to go inside, but it is blocked off by fence. “Archaeological work by my former colleagues,” explains our guide, as if anticipating my question. I walk up to the fence and take a look beyond.

               On the other side of the fence, there is a pit that is around 10 feet deep. At the bottom is what looks like doors. “They could be part of the Treasury!” I say to myself, excitedly. Perhaps it is even bigger than it looks.

               I think through what I know about its history. No one knows why it was built, with the main theories being either a temple or a tomb.  It is, however, agreed that the Treasury is not a treasury. That name comes from the Bedouin mythology about the site, which states that it was where the pharaoh hid his wealth. Tiny bullet holes pock-mark the Treasury’s façade where locals tried to shoot it open and access its wealth.

               It also appeared in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. If you can all recall, this was where Indiana Jones rode at the end of the movie in search of the Holy Grail. There, he was met by challenges to protect it, and finally confronted an old knight. In real life, though, it is just a box on the inside (I know, I’m disappointed too). But the movie was filmed here, and that gives Petra at least some credit.
               Finally, it is time to go. I am sad to leave the Treasury, but I know that I still have all of Petra ahead of me. As I turn a corner, I take one last look at the Treasury. Then it is gone. 


Sunday, August 26, 2012

Rise to the Summit-Pt. 1

               The Rocky Mountains are beautiful at night. I hear the soft breath of wind in the grass; see the full moon illuminating the landscape as if it were day. There is almost no one on the roads. Town is abandoned, which makes it seem a little eerie as we drive through in our noisy white car. Before I know it, we’re at the trailhead. “We’ll get a good parking spot,” my Dad says. That’s clear, because there is practically no one there. The only other person I can see is our guide, who beckons eagerly as he lights up his headlamp. As soon as we can strap on all of our gear, we start hiking.

Longs Peak. 14,249 feet. Takes between 11 and 15 hours. 14 miles round trip. Number of potentially lethal scenarios: a lot. All of these things are going through my head as I start climbing one of the most difficult mountains in Rocky Mountain National Park, and certainly the hardest one I had ever tried. Here I was, at 12:30 in the morning, strapping on hiking shoes and a headlamp in order to climb a mountain that averaged at least one death per year. How did I get into this? However, these thoughts are quickly pushed from my mind as I start to lose myself in the trail.

The first few hours pass with relatively little interest. Besides the added challenge of only being able to see a few feet in front of you, it is pretty much regular hiking.

I am amazed by how fast the minutes—and miles—seem to pass when it’s nighttime. It’s like your brain is too sleepy to realize that your body is already getting tired. Anyway, by the time we’ve gone over a few rivers and through a lot of woods, it is actually pretty fun. Before I know it, we’ve arrived at the treeline.

Despite the name, there is no real “line” where the trees stop. It happens gradually, as the huge trees start to be replaced by smaller shrubs and lichens. I start to notice this change of surroundings as we slowly make our way further up the mountain.  Having no trees, of course, makes the view much better. Still, I spend most of my time staring at the ground in order to avoid harming myself on any roots or rocks. The first chance I get to take a look around is during a water break. I am not disappointed.

The mountains around us are silhouetted against the night sky. Their vast, lurking shapes are like sleeping giants. The night sky is pure, with a full moon and stars shining like cold steel. You can see beyond the mountains and into the plains of Colorado, where the twinkling lights of cities dot the landscape. Below us, more hikers make their way up the mountain, their headlamps looking like little candles in a huge religious procession. The whole scene is surreal.

I am tugged from my amazement by the sound of our guide’s voice. “Let’s get going,” he said. We quickly pack up our stuff and get back on the trail. Slowly, the top of the ridge gets closer, and closer, and closer. More hours pass as we hike closer to our goal.

               I catch my first glimpse of the Boulderfield. True to its name, it is covered in humongous boulders of odd shapes and angles. Little tents are pitched for those who complete the climb in two stages.

We start crawling over the first boulders. I can still only see a few feet in front of me, and the going is tough. We pass boulder after boulder after boulder, seeming not to get anywhere. Rocks the size of trucks lie in our path

               Eventually we make our way to the small camp, where a gurgling stream runs. Our guide fills up our now depleted water bottles in the stream, and puts in drops of water cleaner. Apparently, you need to do this to clean the fecal matter out of the mountain water. We carefully replace our bottles inside our packs so that we don’t drink any before it is clean.

I’m starting to quite enjoy wearing a headlamp. The 90 lumens of brightness cut through the darkness like scissors, and the light follows your gaze. Although the only thing I’m looking at is the ground.

At that point, I was actually beginning to feel tired, dusty, and altogether unhappy to be climbing that mountain at such an ungodly hour. But the sunrise made it all worth it. As I looked out over the mountains and saw the magnificent first rays of light coming over the horizon, I forgot about everything.

All of the scenery was lit up with a warm, golden light. The surrounding mountains, formerly cloaked in shadow, are now illuminated in every detail. The enveloping sunlight frames the land as if it were a painting. The new light reveals to me exactly how far we have climbed, which is a lot. We are already nearly even with the tops of the other mountains. I look out over Twin Sisters, Estes Cone, all of those mountains that were once the hardest I had ever climbed. Briefly, I smile, thinking how easy they seemed to me now.

My Dad is snapping sunrise pictures like crazy. I pose for a few of them, making sure that I look like a rugged adventurer.
Longs Peak itself is horribly exposed in the new light. The jagged peak stands out against the sky like a crow. Nearby, I can see our objective, the Keyhole. It will be our door to the other side of the mountain, from which we will make our final ascent. I can tell that it will be a long and arduous climb.

        We make our way ever closer to the Keyhole, weaving our way through (and over) progressively larger boulders. It is a lot farther than it looks. We stop several times for water and rest. Closer, closer, closer. The Keyhole, once tiny, now looks monstrous. Finally, we are there.

I climb triumphantly toward the Keyhole, not knowing what to expect on the other side. My hand grips the boulders at its base, bringing me nearer to it. At last, I pull myself onto the platform. I stand at the top, under that massive rock formation, and look through. A huge abyss waits to swallow me. For a second I wonder whether to go through, whether my long prepared resolve would carry me through to the other side. I step through.

To be continued… in The Conclusion
The Boulderfield, looking like a strange, alien ocean. This is the first time that it was light enough to take pictures.
Climbing towards the Keyhole over huge rocks
Me, enjoying the beautiful sunrise.
 Getting closer to the Keyhole as dawn breaks
The harsh front face of Longs Peak
Finally at the Keyhole, uncertain of what lies beyond

Rise to the Summit-Conclusion

Continued from Part 1

               I am on the other side of the Keyhole, the massive rock formation that leads hikers to the final ascent onto Longs Peak. I have already been climbing for at least four hours, and completed most of the mileage. However, I know looking out over the path that the miles I have left will be far harder.

As I stand on the other side of the Keyhole, I look down into a void. The mountain plunges sharply, meaning any missteps will lead to a several hundred foot fall. I can see all the way back to the valley floor. My stomach lurches. I may not be afraid of heights, but I am afraid of dying.

I pull myself away from the cliff only long enough to see the path that we still have ahead of us, which is just as terrifying. Tiny red bull’s-eyes are painted to show you the route across the otherwise vertical cliff face. In a good place, that route is two or three feet wide. In a bad place, the same route is only inches. All the way, slippery rock drops straight down to a sure death.

My guide, seemingly heedless to all of this, bounds on happily. He seems as chipper as ever, probably because he has navigated this deathly expanse before. My Dad and I cautiously follow, always keeping an eye on the huge drop next to us.

Inch by inch we make our way forward, lodging our feet on tiny pieces of rock. Sometimes, we have to shimmy across along the smooth faces of boulders, all the while knowing that losing our foothold could mean meeting our creator. Sometimes, we diverged from the path in order to pursue a less dangerous path.

This section of the trail is called The Ledges, and it is easy to see why. Really, it is impossible to get away from a ledge. This whole face of the mountain is almost vertical, and the trail itself is on an angle, so there really aren’t any “ledges.” The whole thing is one giant ledge!

We journey closer to the Peak ever more slowly. It is tiring, and we often have to stop for breaks. Not to mention the psychological effect of the nearby plunge to death.

At length, we make it past The Narrows. One short scramble over a boulder and I can see the Trough. Here the route turns away from the cliff and on towards the summit. I am relieved to be away from the cliff, but I am worried about the incline of this piece. It looks to be steeper than any part that has come before. Unfortunately for us, it is.

We make just as slow of a pace up the Trough. I have a little fun bounding up the rocks, but it is soon overcome by the monotony of the climb. It is hard work. Grab, pull, step. Grab, pull, step. Over and over again. My Dad is beginning to fall behind, and we have to stop frequently to rest. The Trough seems endless.

We are nearing the top. The bleak scene of rocks and grey dirt begins to melt away, and I can see the sky. We are over! For a second, my heart leaps. However, my joy at being done with one trial quickly disappears as I realize there is a greater one ahead.

On top of the Trough, I look into an abyss just as great as that of the Keyhole. The path, known here as the Narrows, once again winds its way along the steep mountainside.

One more quick stop and we are off. Once more, we carefully toe the thin path of the Narrows. Once more, we look down at a long drop. Once more, I wonder if this is ever going to end.

The view is depressing. I can only see more cold stone and steep drops. The mountain seems ever more unfriendly. I look down the cliff and see a pile of skeletons (okay, maybe I made that part up).

Everything is the same. Everything blurs together. I can no longer tell one stone from the next. It is almost dull when we find ourselves on the other side of the Narrows. However, I am quickly excited again when our guide tells us that this is the Homestretch. This is almost the top! I can barely contain my excitement.

With renewed vigor, we start climbing. I bound up rocks as if I hadn’t been climbing since midnight. We were near the Peak!

The Homestretch is the single hardest part of the climb. It is almost as if it was placed at the end intentionally, as one final hurdle for intrepid hikers. It looks almost vertical from afar, but upon closer examination is actually a little sloped. This made it easier. But not too much easier.

As we climb onward, my scarcely operating mind begins to wonder if this is really the top. What if the guide has misled us? What if we still have more climbing to do, or miles to go? I keep climbing.

The first glimpse I catch of the top is almost like a mirage. “It can’t be flat,” I thought, “It has to keep going higher.” But it is flat! As I pull myself over the edge, onto that paradise of flat ground, I felt the greatest pride I have ever felt. I had done it! I had climbed Longs Peak!

The views were incredible. There are hardly words to describe such beauty, such sheer scale and magnitude. The landscape before us looked like a vast ocean, churning with the foam of clouds. The peaks of mountains were like islands far below and far away. The air was pure and chill, like the breath of angels. Beams of sunlight came down like flowing water. Far away, in the flatlands of Colorado, I could see the swaying fields spread out like honey.

I see the cliffs and sheer drops that we made our way across. I see the vast expanse of boulders and those little tents. I see, far below, the beginnings of the treeline. And I hear the soft breath of wind in the grass…

And then I remember that I still have to get back down.

                                           I love this one
The view that greeted me as I stepped through the Keyhole
Climbing at a rather odd angle
The Red bulls-eyes that mark the path
The path was wide here
Looking up the enormous Trough, a long and tough climb
Looking at the back at the Narrows. Another hiker is making his way across
Taking a rest on one of the more level areas, we enjoy the breathtaking view
Looking at a different section of the Narrows, the path is not even visible
Looking up at the almost-vertical Homestretch
Climbing up to the Peak
Celebrating on top with a high five
The great view over the valley
Me perched on top of the altitude marker, which marks the true peak
The sea of mountains
The elevation marker, at the highest point
One of the crystal-clear mountain lakes, reflecting the clouds
Mountains rolling off into the distance
The brutal front face of Longs Peak

Another amazing view, with the trees lapping the bottom of the mountains like water
Looking back down the Homestretch

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Helicopter Tour of Chicago

Helicopter Tour of Chicago

Today, I took a helicopter tour with of the city of Chicago with Sun Aero Helicopters. I have to say, seeing the tallest buildings in Chicago up close out the side of a helicopter is awe-inspiring. I wrote this review about the Sun Aero tours and about helicopter rides in general.

Before Going: 10/10
Reason for Score: I thought it would be cool to take a helicopter tour
Note: This review does not put the Sun Aero Helicopter Tour on scale with other 10/10s, like the Pyramids. The helicopter tour of Chicago receives a 10/10 for Chicago, where there is not really an abundance of world shattering historical sites. Still, riding a helicopter is pretty cool, and is certainly worth a review on my site.

What is it?
My review of the Sun Aero (don’t ask me about the name, it seems weird to me too) Helicopter Tour is really broken up into three distinct parts; the marshes, the lakefront, and the inner city. The tour begins in a small airport/heliport outside of Chicago, from which you first visit the marshes. The marshes, a name that I made up for this review, are a small area outside of Chicago crisscrossed (yeah, that's a word) by canals and swamps. It is actually kind of fun to see the tiny barges and shipping vessels meandering through the small locks and waterways. However, this is far surpassed by the next part of the helicopter tour, the lakefront. Imagine the view of Chicago that you always see on T.V., but outside the window of the helicopter! The lakefront tour takes you over some of Chicago’s most famous landmarks, such as Soldier Field, the Museum of Science and Industry, and the Shedd Aquarium. Still, my favorite part of the whole helicopter tour is the inner city of Chicago. When I say Inner City, I mean weaving in between buildings! The pilot of the helicopter took us right around the skyscrapers that Chicago is famous for. We could even see the people inside the Sears Tower! Lastly, we circled back around Chicago and returned to the airport.

Why you should go:
I would recommend a helicopter tour to three sets of people; people who like thrills, people who like views, and people who like Batman. People who like thrills would enjoy flying through the air in one of the most unique machines on Earth, the helicopter. It isn’t exactly a roller coaster ride, but I still found it exciting. Next, the helicopter is a great vehicle to take in the views of Chicago. You can see every building and monument in a way that you just couldn’t match from the ground. Not to mention that you can take great pictures out the windows of the helicopter. Finally people who like Batman are rewarded by the views of Gotham City, most of which was constructed from Chicago. Christopher Nolan filmed most of the panoramic shots of Gotham here, out the doors of helicopters, for his Dark Knight trilogy. I’ll talk a little bit more about Batman in my next post. So, in summary, fans of adrenaline, panoramas, and Gotham should go. Conveniently for me, I fall into all three of those categories.

I don’t really have too much advice for this one. Make sure to bring a coat, because it sometimes gets cold up there in flying helicopters, and sunglasses, for the glare from buildings. The tour length depends on how long you have scheduled for. Nevertheless, if you have the option to, I recommend scheduling your tour in the morning. In my opinion, the lighting is best at that time for helicopter riding. If you decide to take a helicopter tour with Sun Aero, be aware that they are a little hard to make plans with. Don’t forget to confirm your tour before making any definite assumptions. Also, don’t forget to check the weather frequently before your tour. The tour may be rescheduled if there is any sign of rain. Finally, don’t get angry if the company tells you that their helicopter is broken. That happened to me, but I figured that it was a lot better for it to break before my tour than during it. You can find Sun Aero Helicopters at www.sunaerohelicopters.com.

After Going: 10/10
Reason for Score: I could see the people in the Sears Tower!

Email me at michaelworldtravel@gmail.com with anything; questions, comments, concerns, you name it.

Have you ever been in a helicopter? Or been to Chicago? Tell us about it in the comments section and you may be recognized in my next post.

I apologize for the quality of the photos, my Dad only took ones where you can see me :)

I am not at all affiliated with Sun Aero Helicopters, I actually don't care about them whatsoever.

 On the tarmac

 Flying out over houses

 Flying up the lakeshore towards the city

 The buildings of Chic- ahem, Gotham

 Preparing to buzz the Sears Tower

Back on the pad

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Britain in Action-The Churchill War Rooms

This post is going to be about the Churchill War Rooms, an underground bunker in the center of London. During World War II, Winston Churchill ran England and coordinated the war effort from this bunker. It has been kept in its original condition since then, and is now open to tourists. I visited it last year, and very much enjoyed it.

The Churchill War Rooms
Before Going: 9/10
Reason for Score: I wanted to see the real places of World War II, history’s most famous war.

Why you should go:
I was fascinated by the World War II history of the War Rooms. It was really cool to see the nerve center of the English war effort, and where Winston Churchill wrote himself into the history books. The Churchill War Rooms are all in their original condition (as far as I could tell), with even the furniture in the same position.  My favorite War Room is the Map Room, completely covered in maps of the world. These maps were used to keep track of all of the fronts and territorial changes during the world’s most devastating war, World War II. It was pretty wonderful to see the same pins and strings from the War in the same place as they were when the War was won. Phew! Try saying that 10 times. Anyway, I would highly recommend this place to anyone who is interested in World War II. If you consider yourself a World War II buff, or even an amateur who has a little curiosity, consider visiting the places like this where the war was fought.

I advise touring the Churchill War Rooms without a guide. Everything is set up like a giant museum, and the individual rooms are very well organized and explained. You can decide which rooms you are interested in, but, if you’re short on time, I recommend sticking to the main route and skipping the attached Winston Churchill Museum. It should take you no more than two hours to visit the War Rooms in their entirety, but you can do it in less if you have to. If you’re pressed for time, try setting a limit on how long you spend at the site and don’t get too involved in reading individual signs.

After Going: 9/10
Reason for Score: It’s like a WWII museum where WWII actually happened.

Sorry about only having two pictures, they don't let you take any inside.

Michael McGerty in front of the Churchill War Rooms sign, London
 The spectacular Churchill War Rooms sign

Michael McGerty's picture in front of the Churchill War Rooms, London
A back entrance to the Churchill War Rooms

Monday, July 23, 2012

Poll Results

The poll on what I should write about next is closed. It ended up being a tie between Jerusalem and Paris, with a grand total of one vote each. Come on guys! If even one of you votes in the next poll, you might decide what I publish next! Try it.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Three Steps to Enjoy Travel

How to enjoy travel according to a 14 year old (me):

Step 1. Meet People
You can understand another culture a lot better if you talk to a few locals than if you read an encyclopedia (though I would recommend doing both). There are many people in the Middle East and Europe who I would consider my friends. Now, when I say meet people, I don't mean just walk up to a person on the street and expect to become lifelong companions. Instead, maybe ask the tour guides a few more questions than the average tourist. Or strike up a conversation with a shopkeeper about local events. It makes your trip much more enjoyable if you can get a local's perspective.

Step 2. Don't be lazy
You can sleep in another time, folks. For many people, a trip like this is a once in a lifetime event. Use your time here to the fullest. Get up early, stay out late, always be rushing to the next sight. Enjoy yourself! To get the most out of your time, it helps to know what you want to see, so you may want to research a little beforehand. There is always one more thing you can visit!

Step 3. Go outside your comfort zone
Most of the time, people plan vacations to relax. I think that vacations should be a time to try new things; a time to be adventurous. Whenever you think you are too tired, or too nervous, or you don't have enough time, ask yourself "when will I have the chance to do this again?" Another part of getting out of your comfort zone is abandoning technology. Computers and Ipads should be left at home. Sure, bring your phone, but don't use it to check your email five times a day. When my Dad and I were in the Middle East, we joked that there could have been a new President elected in America and we wouldn't know it. I think that it's a good thing to be unplugged from the news for a little while.

Abide by these three simple ideas and your trip to wherever you're going will be a pleasant one.

Email me at michaelworldtravel@gmail.com. I would love to answer your questions and respond to your suggestions.

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Thursday, July 12, 2012

Westminster Abbey

Westminster Abbey

Today, I’m going to tell you about Westminster Abbey, the most recognizable church in England. If you’ve been following the English Royal Family, you’ve probably seen this place on the news. Most recently, it was the site of the Royal Wedding of Prince William and now-Princess Kate. Even if you don’t care about the monarchs, though, Westminster Abbey is still a beautiful church that is worth visiting. If you want, read my one of my other articles on London by clicking here.

Before Going: 9/10
Reason for Score: I had seen the Abbey a lot on T.V. J

Why you should go:
The three biggest interests at Westminster were the famous graves, the beautiful architecture, and the Royal Family. First, I saw a whole lot of famous people buried in the Abbey.  My favorites were Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, and Rudyard Kipling, who were all buried here. Second, I was really struck by the beauty of the building in general. The architects didn’t spare any expense in designing the building to be as detailed as it is huge. Of course, it helps to have access to the King’s checkbook J. Finally, the Royal Family has had a long history here. Coronations and other royal events have occurred here for almost a millennium.  I remember most watching the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Princess Kate on the news. It was pretty cool to know the Abbey from T.V. before ever even going. I loved Westminster Abbey, and I hope you will too.

It doesn’t really matter whether you enjoy the Abbey with or without a guide. The Abbey is a large place, but it is easy to navigate on your own. I went with a guide only to make sure I saw all of London before I had to leave. It takes roughly an hour to see the Abbey at a relaxed pace, but you could do it more quickly. Because of my aforementioned hurry, I did it in much less than an hour. The point is, make sure to see Westminster Abbey on your tour of London.

After Going: 9/10
Reason for Score: It is a great, historical church where Isaac Newton is buried

A statue of Oliver Cromwell in front of Westminsters Abbey, London, England
 The giant statue of Oliver Cromwell, an English hero

Me with my guide, John Gowing, by Westminster Abbey, London, England
 Me and my guide, John Gowing, outside the Abbey

The beautiful architecture of Westminster Abbey, London, England
Can you see the change in the design of the buttresses? This was caused of kings in England. The new king wanted to outdo his predecessor and leave his mark on the church.

Decorative statues in front of Westminster Abbey, London, England
Decorative statues that are as big as I am!

Looking at Westminster Abbey and its stained glass windows
Yeah, it's that big