Fortified Churches of Romania

mountain church

Romania might bring to mind images of Dracula and Transylvania, the mountains spilling through the country, or the Black Sea, but ….fortified churches?   And what, exactly, is a fortified church?  I knew nothing about fortified churches until I began to research my trip to Romania.  I read through the Lonely Planet guidebook, curious about the history of these ancient treasures.  It struck me that these small village churches (many looking to be on the verge of ruin) had been embedded in the local landscape for centuries, surviving long enough for some to be inducted as UNESCO World Heritage sights.  Once I was able to step inside them, it was easy to be charmed and awed by what they represented, their sturdy steeples declaring their presence as we criss-crossed the region.


Villages seemed to grow around the old fortresses over the centuries, offering a juxtapostion of old and new.


On the first day exploring Romania with my friends, Anthony and Helene, we stopped in a quaint town in the hills, Curtea de Arges, where we explored our first ancient church, the Princely Court, and then a monastery, which happened to be surrounded by brides and their grooms on a sunny Saturday afternoon.  Families gathered under trees, cameras recording every moment.  A service was taking place in the cool calm of the church and we peeked through the doors to witness a few moments of a wedding.

And this was our journey for the next several days– an investigation of old churches built to withstand an onslaught of invaders.  We climbed bell tower after bell tower, a rickety collection of steps and failing ladders to see the views across the countryside — the villages stretching out to meet fields of green or mountains in the distance.


Visitors were few and we had many churches to ourselves, only Helene and I witnessed the bump and curse as Anthony hit his head on low hanging beams while climbing the bell towers.


bellBut what was most surprising was the abundance of frescoes that had survived in the churches, paintings still showing luster after centuries, portraying stories from the bible and inspiring faith in congregations.  In the cool quiet of the deserted churches, I stood and stared at the amazing art, my eyes tracing stories and looking into the timeless stares of holy men, angels, and warriors preserved until today.


fresco1 fresco2insidedomeAlthough entering the churches would seem to be straightforward, we soon discovered the novelty of being random visitors and having to initiate another journey to seek the key.  Enter the gatekeeper, whose whereabouts were designated with a simple sign stating an address in the village. And off we would go (or rather, Helene, with a helpful command of German), to fetch the keeper of the key, our admittance into history.


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Once located, we followed the gatekeeper down the road, a formidable key in hand to open the locked fortress.  The gatekeeper would then stand to one side as we walked through, our cameras and phones directed at the art, my mouth open in astonishment at the contrast between the outside and inside.  Behind the simple stone or brick walls, there were more complex structures, often double-walls, and a view of domestic life.  Some gatekeepers lived on site and we were greeted by dogs and cats, or perhaps a flock of chickens, baby chicks scurrying after the hens looking for insects in the velvety summer grass.


Our purchase of a simple purple “Transilvania Card” allowed entry to 50 of the medieval and fortified churches, gaining a simple nod of agreement as we presented it at each site.

fortress ruin

It felt like a scavenger hunt, or more appropriately, a treasure hunt, as we followed GPS from church to church, logging our conquests with photos and then moving on to the next prize, another jewel in our crown of churches.  I often stood in the quiet cool spaces, thinking of the generations of village people who had sat and worshipped in the different churches, faith in something bigger than themselves, and hope that the fortress could keep invaders at bay.


Some fortresses had small windows, also known as “murder holes”, to look onto the encroaching enemy, allowing them to shoot arrows into the oncoming troops.  But we were more likely to see a cow wandering the yard around the fortress, concerned with eating grass, not world domination.

murder hole

At one church, we stayed in the guest house behind the church, enjoying a home cooked supper of chicken soup, goulash, bread, salad, and wine– spectacular!  As we made our way over to the church the next morning, a young girl appeared to give us a tour in German.  She talked in a slow disinterested drawl, gesturing at different parts of the church. When I asked my friend, Helene, for translation, it appeared that a good part of the speech was “I don’t know.” Mesmerizing.


But our trip was not in vain as we discovered a small kitten trapped in a tree just outside  and were successful in locating the owner to initiate a rescue.  The kitten had been stuck in the tree all night and returned to earth cold, tired, hungry, and happy to be reunited with his mother.  His weak mews under sleepy eyes, made your heart break.

And then there were the storks – a staple in every village, nesting on towers or steeples, clacking their beaks under the summer sun.



The wonder was partly in the journey, searching for the churches as we drove through the countryside, never knowing exactly what treasure we would find behind the walls, the sunny warmth of the day encouraging us to walk around the sacred grounds to understand a past way of life under the same sunny skies.

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Chiang Mai Winter Escape

In the northeast United States, fall has taken hold as leaves swirl around me on a morning walk or run.  I’ve had to resort to long sleeves and even a fleece and a jacket a few times, but thankfully, it’s a warm fall and the temperatures still bounce between warmer days and cooler nights, inviting a few last occasions for open windows.

But winter is imminent.  I don’t like the cold.  Rather, I hate to BE cold so winter is not my favorite season.  Being wrapped in a blanket inside is just too stifling for me.  I want to move unencumbered by jackets and hats and gloves, feeling the sun on bare arms and legs.

So where should you go to escape the snow and the ice?  Maybe you have the time or the logistic flexibility to live or work somewhere warmer in the winter.  Why not try Chiang Mai, Thailand?    It’s cooler than Bangkok but still bustling with energy and people. And much less expensive than heading to the southern states of the U.S.  Of course, there is the small matter of airfare, but there are regular deals to Asia and once there, the living is cheap.

A few winters ago I was able to spend some time there.  I had the happy accident of arriving in time for the annual Flower Festival.  I wandered through the fairground atmosphere, in awe of the brilliant decorated floats glowing with lights.  Families and tourists made their way through stalls of flowers and food, eating grilled ears of corn and other treats, laughing and enjoying the warm night.


The next day there was “Sunday walking street,” another excuse for everyone to take to the street, closed to traffic for the evening, for more eating, drinking, and shopping.

If you are an animal lover (how can you not be?), visit the Elephant Nature Park, a sanctuary for elephants rescued from working lives, usually in the logging industry.  In the park, the elephants are free to live with other elephants while tourists visit them for a fee, a way to cover the expenses for their care.  Their stories are heart breaking and amazing – there was an elephant blinded by a cruel owner but she now had an elephant friend to lead her around the park; another elephant had suffered a broken back, hip, and leg but had healed enough so she could live out her life not threatened by more of the beatings and work that had left her disabled.  And there were happier stories – the elephants who were having babies, babies born into a better life protected by the herd.



If you love Thai food as much as me, experiment with a cooking class!  I took a full day organic cooking class at the Thai Farm Cooking School, learning how to make several dishes, including the hot red curry that I love so much.


And of course, there are the temples.  One of the most famous is Wat Phra That, high on a hill overlooking the Chiang Mai valley.  It is a destination for people seeking courses in meditation and is a spectacular golden treasure.


I had time to visit multiple temples scattered throughout the city.  At one temple, I met  and then enjoyed lunch with a monk, a retired professor from the U.S. who had practiced Buddhism for 40 years and was spending his winter in Chiang Mai.


To complete the week, take a trek in the hill country.  A couple I met in my cooking class invited me to join them and their private guide and we were able to go for a hike in Dom Inthanon National Park.  We stopped at the market that morning to buy fried chicken and fruit for our lunch and we spent the day walking through fields and forests, stopping at a small hill tribe village to meet some locals.


So much to do and see and only a short inexpensive flight from Bangkok!  For more information on Thailand, see

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Vietnam from south to north

I wasn’t sure what to expect on my first visit to Vietnam in 2006 but may have been even less prepared for what I found on my second visit in 2012.  On my first visit, I was only able to see a snapshot of the country from the far south in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh city to the northern city of Hanoi.  I was there to do volunteer work in a dental clinic but we were certainly not denied the opportunity to explore the people, the cities, and the culture. On my second visit, I was there for business in Ho Chi Minh city and I was amazed at the transformation only six years later – more buildings reaching to the sky, more tourists to crowd the streets and markets, and more “westernization” with smart phones and Wifi.

Back to the first visit, when I volunteered with Global Dental Relief.  They conduct dental clinics in Asia, Africa, and Central America and I’ve been on four trips with them.  In Vietnam, the dental clinic was located between Danang and Hoi An.  We based ourselves in Hoi An, one of the most interesting cities I’ve ever visited – very close to beaches but with an artistic focus and just brimming with collectibles, crafts, and original art.  And there were the tailors for quick custom-made clothing.  Our entire group indulged, boosting the local economy as we commissioned shirts, pants, skirts, dresses, and even robes.

Vietnam clinic kids

Patients, dental clinic

The conditions were rustic in American terms.  It was November but there is no winter in Vietnam.  It was extremely hot and humid, reminiscent of August in Miami or New Orleans.  I couldn’t imagine soldiers fighting in the same conditions during the war in the 60’s and 70’s.  Generators provided our power but there were drops from time to time as I assisted a pediatric dentist.  Suddenly the drill would stop.  We’d yell, “No power!”, tinkering would ensue outside and then the magic of the drill would start again.  Masks covered our faces, goggles protected our eyes, and the sweat ran down our backs like nervous insects but we were focused on treating as many children as possible.  We were only in the clinic for one week.  At the end of the Thanksgiving week, our clinic had treated several hundred children.  I discovered what a “cankle” was as I watched my lower legs transform with the combination of heat, humidity, the cramped position chairside and the salty diet.  It didn’t matter.  The outhouse Asian toilets and the extreme heat chased around the hot room by a few fans didn’t matter either.  Nothing really mattered except seeing as many children as possible.

Vietnam clinic

Generator power, dental clinic

When the clinic concluded, we had the chance to put our feet up and let our fluids redistribute as our cankles disappeared.  While we relaxed in chairs by the beach, too tired to even run into the waves, we watched some young Vietnamese girls enjoying the water.  Cultural norms dictated a different approach to a swim in the ocean.

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Beach outside of Hoi An

But soon it was time to move on to Hue, even hotter than Hoi An.  And like most places in Vietnam, the streets were full of scooters and masked natives shielding themselves from the sun and pollution.

Vietnam street Hue

Street scene, Hue

Our small group of volunteers now had time to enjoy the sights.  Boarding a dragon boat, we sailed down the Perfume river to explore the Thien Mu pagoda.

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Dragon boats, Vietnam

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Thien Mu Pagoda outside of Hue

A few days in Hue and then on a plane to visit Hanoi.  We landed in the gray skies of the Vietnam version of winter, where temperatures in the 60’s prompted most Vietnamese to wrap themselves in winter coats.  We toured the Hanoi Hilton, the famous prison where they subjected their victims to various forms of torture.  Gracious mannequins depicted some of the treatments to offer the full effect.


Hanoi Hilton

We also took in a local cultural attraction, the Museum of Ethnology, which included some rather interesting sculptures.

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Sculpture from the Vietnamese Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi

My only regret is that I didn’t have more time to enjoy the country and the people. I’m sure I’ll make it back – so many countries, so much to see!

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Copyright 2016 ©; photos cannot be reproduced without permission.

Have you explored Myanmar?

Bagan White temple

Temple in Bagan, Myanmar

Slowly, slowly, the crowds are starting to trickle into Myanmar, still called Burma by some countries.   The Burmese (or the government?) have decided that tourism is a good thing. It’s an interesting place – generally south Asia is an inexpensive place to travel but Myanmar was two to three times more expensive than its neighbors. I was there with a couple of friends and we decided to max out our visas, staying for 27 days, edging the 28-day limit. Traveling with friends made it much more affordable for lodging and transport, definitely the most significant portion of our spending.

Some places were more rustic than others – one excursion took us to Mrauk U, seldom visited by anyone and the limited choices in lodging meant we had some interesting company in our room.  It’s always a bit surprising to have squealing from the ceiling wake you at 3 a.m.  It was a matter of “insert ear plugs” and return to sleep.  Whenever I’m sleeping under a mosquito net, it also suffices as a cloak of invisibility in middle-of-the-night logic.

In cities like Bagan, there were buses full of tourists from Europe, traveling in large groups and armed with water bottles, sunscreen, and sun defying hats and sunglasses.  All were eager to explore the temple-studded landscape.


Bagan Landscape


The ubiquitous Buddhas greeted us at every stop and no two seemed alike.  The one below seems somewhat restored but still possess the knowing smile, and sedate eyes while the subtle cracks betray the antiquity of his being.

Burma buddha

One face of Buddha

My friend and I opted for bikes to tour from temple to temple, simmering in the heat as we glided along the uncrowded roads, enjoying the slight breathe of air created by our pedaling. By early afternoon, we were ready for lunch in the shade of some trees, dining outdoors at a small café with fresh squeezed lime drinks to wash the dust from our dry mouths.  The highlight was the delicious tamarind candies, innocent looking enough in wax paper wrapping, but delivering a burst of fresh tart flavor to finish our meal.

Bagan temple

Exploring temples in Bagan, Myanmar

Burma temple detail

Temple detail of Buddha

Even the local livestock were fascinated with the temples, embedded as they were in the landscape and the lifestyle.  They just couldn’t stay away.

Burma cow

Cow exploring temple in Bagan, Myanmar

This monkey took a break from exploiting the crowds at one temple, perhaps subdued by the practice of compassion.

Burma monkey

Monkey resting at a temple

By two or three in the afternoon, we retreated to the small pool at our hotel.  It seemed the only sensible thing to do in the oppressive heat until the sun dipped low in retreat signaling it was time to venture out again for dinner.

Burma sunset

Myanmar sunset

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Wat Magic

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Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Angkor Wat. One of earth’s cultural treasures made even more famous by appearing in a movie – Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. The movie appeared in 2001 and was followed by another in 2003. I’ll admit I’ve never seen either movie except for bits and pieces, but when you see the shot at Ta Prohm, it seems impossible that it is a real place and not a movie set. Seeing the roots of giant trees grasping for a hold on the ancient stone temple while massive limbs reach hundreds of feet into the sky seems to defy the laws of physics.  The roots, like the fingers of a cliff climber, curl around to lodge their bony flesh into every crack and crevice, securing a hold as the tree reaches for the sun.

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Ta Prohm, Cambodia

On my first visit to Cambodia in 2004, the Cambodians were eager to talk about the movie and the movie stars. That visit was prior to the massive hordes of tourists that are now commonplace and I felt I could explore the several structures in some peace, lingering to take photos and inspect the handiwork from around 1113 AD. Siem Reap was a small and manageable city then; a few restaurants for tourists and some small hotels and guest houses.  But I could already see the signs of progress as construction sites were rampant with signs announcing new hotels.  When I returned in 2014, the area had changed. It had become a city full of tourists and high end hotels, bars, and restaurants promoting a “party” atmosphere along the once quieter streets.

On my first visit I shot this small “traffic jam” at the ancient temple.  Look closely and you’ll see the elephant at the front of the line entering the gate.  Thankfully, the elephant rides are ending.  (The more I know about elephant training, the more I can’t stand the thought of these great creatures ferrying humans around.)  I was happy to hire a tuk-tuk for the day (a motorcycle pulling a small cart with an awning for shade) and my driver was great.

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“Traffic Jam” at Angkor Wat


Ten years later, Angkor Wat was just as amazing as before even if more crowded.  I always have mixed feelings about the number of tourists.  The more who see and appreciate historical sights, the easier it is to raise money to protect them.  The flip side is that more needs to be done to protect them from the ravages of the hordes.  Watch closely – some people insist on being disrespectful and even destructive (graffiti anyone?) but most truly revel in the sight of something so immense in its statement.  I found myself taking photo after photo (no flash!) to capture the timeless art and the lovely detailed engravings telling the stories and fables of the past. See the serpent grasping a man in his jaws below?  What could he have done to deserve that?


Angkor Wat engraving: Serpent grasping a man in his jaws

How have these structures survived the years?  The temples and buildings of Angkor sit inside a dense jungle and efforts started almost one hundred years ago to clear the site and make it accessible once again.


Jungle surrounding Angkor Wat

If only we could know all of the buried secrets of the past.  Lara – Is that you?


Statue at Angkor Wat temple

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Copyright 2016 ©; photos cannot be reproduced without permission. (Wikipedia used to confirm a few facts about Angkor Wat.)

When the Earth Moves

It’s been just over a year since an earthquake shook the mountains and valleys of Nepal on April 25, 2015. I have great sympathy for the victims, having been to Nepal twice and knowing that resources are limited even in the best of times. After the earthquake, the scarcity of clean water, food, and health care was compounded by a lack of shelter as villages crumbled and the lucky escaped with their lives.


Annapurna, Nepal

Nepal stuns with the beauty of the Himalayas, stretching from Annapurna to the Everest region. I’ve hiked both areas and most “roads” are narrow rocky paths crisscrossing the region, peopled with locals, travelers, and donkeys laden with cases of food (and beer!). I realized how isolated the people were as we walked through forests stopping at the scattered tea-houses for masala tea and momos, the Nepalese answer to the dumpling. People were kind and welcoming. I’m sure the few dollars we spent on our meals were a significant source of income.

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Porters in Nepal

Fall is the trekking season and some of our porters had left their farms after the harvest for the more lucrative tourism-supported pay they could enjoy in October and November. And we were just as happy to have them help carry our gear as we trekked on the back of the Himalayas, enjoying the autumn sun during the arid and warm days, wrapping ourselves in our sleeping bags at night, braced against the mountain cold.

When I hear of disasters in another country, it doesn’t feel distant to me when I’ve been there. I think of the people I met and worry for their safety during the event and I worry for their recovery. Location makes all the difference, as a similar event in the U.S. would not have near the same effects.

Tengboche Monastery

Tengboche, Nepal

I was in Japan when the earthquake hit on Friday afternoon, March 11, 2011. I was on a bus on the way to the airport with another colleague after a week of business in Tokyo. I was glad to be leaving as we’d already had some disturbing small earthquakes that week and I felt it was time to be going home before something more serious happened. But our timing was off. When we arrived at the airport, flights were shut down and we spent the night in the airport until flights could restart the following day. I was in a heated building on a relatively cold wet day, with access to restrooms, and some access to food and water through the various vending machines in the airport. The ever organized Japanese handed out sleeping bags. We stood patiently in line, took our bags and staked out a spot for the night. The workers who were stuck at the airport, closed their shops and prepared a place to sleep on the floor. All relatively calm and I’m sure, nothing like the mayhem in Nepal. Of course, we were nowhere near the tsunami zone. But I’ll admit that the constant aftershocks that night while tucked into my airport sleeping bag were unsettling. The cold hard tile floor was not the most comfortable bed but I felt lucky in comparison despite the feeling that I needed to sleep with one foot out of the bag, ready to run for the first exit if the aftershocks turned into an actual quake.


Kamakura Buddha, Japan

Japan has just had more earthquakes and one shook Ecuador in the last month. Natural events become natural disasters for many reasons. Countries scramble to help and the global response eases the burden but the cycle continues and each time we think that things will be better next time. Like many others, I do what I can, contributing money to various agencies. I also spend time in countries, volunteering my time for other projects with the intent to empower the people and propel them to better lives.  And I hope that the men and women I met while volunteering and hiking in Nepal, working in Japan, and traveling in Ecuador are safe and healthy along with their families.

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