Hi, I’m Benjamin Chait. After backpacking around the world, I moved to Portland, Oregon which serves as home base for exploring and adventures. Say hello @benjaminchait (or email) and let’s grab coffee?

Florence

Five days exploring Florence was lovely. My family—whom I have not seen since departing last fall—landed Monday morning as Sarah and I trained down from Bergamo. And while our time here was short, it was a great slowdown in the run-around-Europe phase of my travels.

Parents The Duomo (Florence Cathedral), from Uffizi The Duomo (Florence Cathedral)

Florence is beautiful. Small streets with cobblestone and shops along the alleyways. Stunning architecture hidden behind massive doorways. Artwork like Michaelangeo’s “David” and other wonders line the city—once you get past the museums ticket counters, of course. Pizzerias and cafés fill the open spaces between shops selling souvenirs, Italian leather or fine stationaries. A walking city, it’s truly delightful. It also helped the building in which we stayed—a truly incredible apartment in the Piazza Santa Croce—was 500-years-old and gorgeous.

Trattoria Street

Between wandering plazas, the streets surrounding the Duomo, the Accademie dell’Arte or the Uffizi gallery, the days were full with family and good food and finally, a vacation.

Bergamo

A long weekend visiting my friend Benthai in his hometown of Bergamo was lovely. We ate pizza every day, finished many delicious—and inexpensive—bottles of wine, savored pastas, cooled off with gelato and caffeinated with plenty of espresso. Milan was a short drive away allowing us to explore the neighboring city by day while spending evenings out with friends in a quieter town. Walking up the hill to the Città Alta (“upper city”) provided some gorgeous views of the northern, mountain town. Really, enjoying days with good food and lovely company made for a delightful vacation.

Pizza, homemade Bergamo hillside

I thoroughly enjoy this lifestyle. Mornings begin with a coffee—espresso based, not drip!—and a brioche (what we Americans describe as a croissant and filled with creme or chocolate). More delicious food at lunch. We hop from café to café in search of cappuccino and gelato for most of the afternoon. Aperitifs (happy hour, anyone?) and snacks around 6 pm. Pizza and more for a late dinner. A short walk downtown with friends for drinks after 10 pm. And crashing in bed sometime after midnight to get some sleep before another day!

Benthai Lasagne, homemade

Prague

A Czech bartender approaches and begins to rattle off what I can only imagine are the evening’s offerings only to pause some five seconds into his speech when he looks at us and—having now switched to English—asks, “You don’t speak Czech, do you?” Returning a few minutes later, he placed before us half-liter glasses with draught beer as we enjoyed the rainy evening indoors.

Saint Vitus Cathedral Stained glass Prague

Three days in Prague were filled with good food, great beer, new friends, exploring castles, amazing architecture, cobblestone streets, relaxing in parks, misty mornings and beautiful riverside walks.

Budapest

Our order is taken, a set menu of three traditional Hungarian courses our final night in Budapest. A gaggle of languages surrounds us from Hungarian to French to English, not counting the various Eastern European tongues spoken at each table. I empathize with the waitress who struggles to find understanding with prospective patrons who arrive not recognizing the set menu written on the wall outside is the entire menu. But my focus is directed to the table before me once our food arrives, a warm goulash and simple, varied appetizers as the starter.

Parliament Building

Our main course appears, chicken covered in paprika with fresh pasta and duck served with an arugula salad; simple yet decadent. It feels the same rule applies to European cities which I always imagine with wide boulevards and stunning architecture. Budapest excels at this. Years of varying empires and influences have left marks ranging from memorials and statues to castles and bridges. And of course, churches abound. The Danube separates Buda, the hills and Castle to the west, from Pest, the downtown areas including the basilica and Parliament. A few short days wandering and I feel I have only barely scratched the surface. Again, simple yet rich.

Danube, from Castle Hill St. Stephen’s Basilica

We share some laughs and brief conversation with the table beside us; they having just arrived, we already on our desserts. Our time in the city has been incredibly short, just over 36 hours to explore and enjoy. We sneak into cafés to escape the occasional light rain then enjoy beautiful waterfront strolls during sunset. It’s definitely spring but chilly when compared to the past week. Finishing our homemade ice cream and pavlova, we enjoy the walk back to our hostel; though relatively quiet with only four of the maybe 25 beds occupied, we still find kind, engaging travelers with whom to chat late at night. And being Europe, we find a 599 HUF (about $2.70) bottle of wine to enjoy before retiring for the night.

Bucharest

One day in Bucharest and I am saddened to depart. By way of train from Istanbul and through Bulgaria, Sarah and I had a brief Romanian stopover. Arriving late in the day, we checked into our hostel and immediately sought food; our dinner of goulash, potatoes and spiced meats was delicious and filling before a good night’s rest. Today was wandering, exploring by foot and admiring the juxtaposition between gorgeous, ominous medieval buildings and their blocky, Soviet-era counterparts. The Old City had more fabulous foods—and drinks!—for us to enjoy on a perfect spring day. We began visiting some of Europe’s many churches. Ice cream in the park capped a simple afternoon. And less than 24 hours after arriving, it was time for us to depart on a sleeper-train bound for Hungary.

Sarah peering out at Romanian countryside Bucharesti, park bench Architecture in the Old City

Istanbul

Straddling both Asia and Europe, the largest city in Turkey is full of history and a diversity in cultures I have not yet seen. (I ought have paid more attention during AP European History.)

Following a day of travel—including a stopover in Doha where Sarah and I rejoined—good food and wandering European streets comprised a delightful first evening. Our trip has become an attempt to eat our way through each day, tasting and seeking what each place offers. Every morning, pastries from street vendors filled our stomachs for the affordable cost of a single Turkish lira (about $0.50). Lunches included the same but added boreks filled with meat or potatoes, plus whatever snacks we could find nearby as we wandered about. Döner kebabs and hummus were our dinners, simple and delicious. Of course, baklava and Turkish delight made great desserts; the countless varieties are staggering yet each piece seemingly more delicious than the last. And of course, enjoying spiced tea or strong Turkish coffee along cobblestone streets made for perfect evenings.

Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque) Ayasofya

Wandering the Old City had me in awe. Our hostel was a nearby to Çemberlitaş, a column brought from the Temple of Apollo in Greece some 1,500 years prior. The Hippodrome and its many relics were a short walk further, including an Egyptian obelisk, the Temple of Apollo’s Serpentine Column, the Million Stone (measuring distances to all places in the Byzantine Empire) and more. I immediately admired the stunning architecture of Sultan Ahmet Mosque, known also as the Blue Mosque. Across the plaza stands Ayasofya (Hagia Sofya), one of Europe’s most famous churches until the Ottomans arrived and declared it an Islamic mosque. Unparalleled architecture, incredible attention to detail, intricate tiles and geometric shapes come together and craft beautiful, immense spaces of worship. (And while Ayasofya is no longer a religious institution, mosques exist everywhere in the city, five reminders each day with the call to prayers.) Standing at the spot where emperors were coronated gave goosebumps, a reminder of the annals of history from Romans to Byzantine and Ottomans. Exploring Topkopi Palace reminded me the grandeur and spectacle of the sultans, their riches and influences. Walking through the surrounding park, I tried to imagine the world some hundreds of years ago. We made visits to both the Grand Bazaar and Spice Bazaar, full of everything I might desire and shopkeepers kindly inviting us to sample their goods. Simply wandering the narrow streets by foot, enjoying paths along the waterfront, even sitting on a bench in the midst of the city—Istanbul was an incredible city in which to find ourselves.

Turkish coffee Istanbul skyline

I am reminded that travel is just as much about the people you meet as the places you visit. From our hostel, lovely conversations and kindred spirits shared the excitement of exploring new cities and new delights. And our new friend, Ali, shared a memorable afternoon following a happenstance meeting in a café. Climbing the stairs of a somewhat random apartment building, we reached the rooftop view looking out across Istanbul’s Golden Horn. The city is incredible. Directly in front of me, Europe; across the water, Asia. Beautiful mosques dot the skyline. The smell of saltwater is present permeates. Drinks, good food and sharing stories of life and travel made such a short stay bittersweet; I am eager to return again soon.

Annapurna

Each step—most no more than a feeble shuffling forward of my feet—and I am that much closer to my goal. The sun bears down upon me as I sweat, still wearing layer upon layer because it requires too much energy to remove them and the weather is too unpredictable. I sleep in everything I am currently wearing except my outermost rain jacket which I have now for its wind protection. My local guide, nicknamed Gavi, is fifty meters ahead but visible with his bright orange pants. Speckled in the distance are a few other trekkers who had an early start this morning; my group began at a leisurely 8:30 am and now, some four-and-a-half hours later, we can see our goal: Annapurna Base Camp. The air is thin and I am exhausted from a maddeningly-fast, four-day ascent to 4,130 meters. I pause for a photo as I pass the sign welcoming me to ABC—annoyed the sign is still some twenty meters from the lodges. Still, five minutes later and I climb the final steps, breathe a sigh of relief and stow my gear in my unheated room quickly so I can join everyone in the warmer common area. The ascent is only half the journey.

Trekking in Nepal has been one of my dreams for many years; I am so incredibly proud to have made good on this goal. Pokhara—about eight hours from Kathmandu via bus—is the perfect starting point for all treks in the famed Annapurna Conservation Area. When I arrived, I had little plan other than to trek in the Annapurna region for as much time as possible. Hiring a guide made the most sense to me; I would have loved finding a group, but the trekking season was declining as monsoon season began. With little desire to embark upon my first Nepal trek solo, I sought a guide. After searching both Kathmandu and Pokhara, I stumbled into Gavi while walking around Lakeside and a few hours later hired him to accompany me to ABC and back down. That afternoon, registration cards were filed, fees paid and the next day we departed at 7:30 am on a two-hour bus ride to the start of our trek.

It was obvious as we departed that I had overpacked. “At least,” I thought to myself, “it all fits in my backpack.” Some six hours later—countless stone steps and 1,000 meters higher—I found myself wishing I had the foresight to leave just a little more with my guest house in Pokhara. But upon reaching our first night’s destination, a mountain village called Ghandruk, all the pains and challenges of a long climb were absolved—with the solitary mountain views I realized how completely worthwhile this trip already was.

Teahouse treks are far more developed than I imagined. Lodges exist every hour or two on major routes supplying food, drink and rest; they also eliminate the need to carry most supplies as a simple, private room with a bed is cheap and one can purchase warm meals at any stop. These lodges also provided great opportunities to meet other trekkers; my first night I encountered Darius and Melanie, from Germany, and we and our guides agreed to trek together since we had the same timeline and route.

Ghondruk sunrise Machhapuchhre from Ghondruk

Waking at sunrise the next morning, I both enjoyed the incredible views and realized these would be long, full days spent traversing hillsides and following small paths between mountain villages. In addition to their towering height, the Himalayas also contain an incredible diversity, especially in the lower regions. Truly stunning landscapes and forests surrounded the first few days of the trek, terraced mountainsides and small villages of Nepali living one, two, even three days from the nearest road. Donkey caravans carry supplies to our second-night’s village of Sinuwa at which point no animals were allowed; locals would then carry everything from food to petroleum canisters as far as base camp some ten or more hours away. Even children often walked two or more hours from a home village to the nearest school—then a return trip in the evening. I was absolutely stunned, partly by the people but also the landscapes. Each day, nature returned with mists rolling through the valley below; I loved standing above the clouds. And not only was it beautiful. Being relatively far from cities, having powered down my phone and with no wifi to be found, I took this opportunity to disconnect. Entirely. Which may have been one of the best parts, one week with me present and quiet, without interruptions. Only my mind and those around me to occupy the days. Part of it was psychological; I had to keep pushing myself and my limits. Our third night spent at 3,200 meters in Deurali was the coldest, wind gusting through the poorly-insulated doorway. I began to tire, hauling my load day after day, step after step.

Annapurna valley, hillside Annapurna valley, looking north Stairs and my trekking group Prayer flag

We reached our highest point Sunday after an aggressive pace climbing some 3,000 meters in elevation in four days; it was here I felt, for the first time in my life, the effects of altitude. But for the discomfort of an upset stomach and a light headache, standing in the Annapurna Sanctuary at the base of 8,000-meter peaks is truly incredible. It’s immensely peaceful. The environment, unforgiving, reminded me its power; a whiteout snowstorm came through mid-afternoon, relegating us inside to the lodge’s common area drinking tea and making new friends. And for me, feeling less-than-good, it provided a warm respite from the cold lodge rooms; sleep that evening was hard to find, wrapped under two blankets and still wearing my day’s layers.

Rising before 5 am to witness sunrise in the valley, Monday morning was frigid. We had a few simple goals: enjoy the views, eat a quick breakfast and begin the long trek down. Though the clouds were less than cooperative, I managed a few lovely moments surrounded in all directions by Hiunchuli, Annapurna South, Annapurna I, Gangapurna, Annapurna III and Machhapuchhre. I pushed myself to explore base camp, even though I still felt sick—when else would I be able to see this? Still cold, I forced myself to finish my soup and tea. A few more photographs and our group grabbed our gear, departing ABC.

Annapurna Base Camp stupa Machhapuchhre from base camp lodge

Our descent was nearly twice the pace of our ascent though we did our best to enjoy our remaining time in the Himalayas. Again, I found myself looking straight at the ground in front of me to avoid tripping; Gavi constantly reminded me to look around at the awesome views—glaciers, peaks, even wildlife. I was simply happy to return to warmer (and safer) climates down valley. After we had dropped below 3,000 meters, I fast-realized just how much the altitude had been impacting me—what I thought was a minor headache was anything but—and was both glad and lucky to have made it down this far safely. Though walking fast, our group of five managed a comfortable pace as we walked through many of the same areas we had passed a few days prior. After Chhomrong, we split from our upward route and headed toward Jhinu for an easier descent (relatively fewer hills) and the opportunity to visit the local hot springs. By Wednesday, we could once again see Nayapul, goodbyes as I climbed onto the local bus. A few hours later and I was back in my Pokhara guest house.

Namaste to ABC, sign upon arrival Have a fantastic trekking, sign upon departure

My week in the Himalayas was full of challenges, new experiences; I have achieved one of my dreams. In some sense, trekking was far more challenging than I imagined. Spending time above 3,000 meters is trying on anyone, much less full days of hiking while carrying a full pack. Part of me wonders why I ever though it might be easy; yet another opportunity for me to learn. Nothing easy is worth doing. If anything, I look back upon my experience and find myself thankful for Gavi, my new friends and all those whom I encountered on the trail. I am both exhausted and fulfilled.

Kathmandu

My taxi shuttered across unpaved streets, dodging potholes, rickshaws, people and the occasional roaming cow; I thought it a miracle the raggedy car itself had not yet fallen apart. The city is dirty, crowded, horns blaring at deafening levels. I struggled with the immense cultural differences, the overall chaos. Crossing streets, riding buses, even the dogs barking at night—all of it exhausting.

I landed alone in Kathmandu, tired from travel and goodbyes. But I never quite recovered.

Kathmandu morning Kathmandu first light Kathmandu sunrise

This was my first experience with abject poverty. Children tugged at my clothing seeking money. An older man tried taking my water bottle when he realized it contained drinkable water. I was followed down the street by those selling trinkets or asking outright for money. It was hard to keep composed. The hot sun, polluted air and ever-present reminders that I am incredibly fortunate to live in a developed country.

In some sense, I found a beauty in the breakdown. While a jarring experience at first, the microbuses which roam the city were cheap and reliable. I felt packed into a container far too small—and probably incredibly dangerous by Western standards—but then again, we were all in it together and always arrived where we intended. The constant construction means Kathmandu is full of new homes, new buildings, even new roads. Just the sheer magnitude of the city’s development is impressive. Visiting a local school impressed me immensely—for how little support education is given by the government, teachers and parents find incredible ways of doing what is right. Small sparks of hope could be found wherever I went; even with the chaos, so much pride exists in the country’s heritage, in its people.

This was my first home stay; full of new experiences, learning opportunities. My host family is incredible; both parents and the two younger boys speak great English and were so very accommodating. But this also made me feel relatively isolated; my first week as a solo traveler and I had jumped completely into a new culture while limiting my interactions with other travelers. In many ways, this felt lonelier than just being on my own. The irony is that, for all the graciousness of my host family, I wanted more independence, more chances to explore and push myself as an individual traveler and less as a “tourist.”

After a week, it was time to make my way to Pokhara—where I am as I write this. I saw far more than I expected in Kathmandu, found more challenges and honestly grew more than I imagined when I arrived.

Going solo

Six months ago I set out traveling with a fantastic girl; yesterday we parted ways as I boarded a plane, alone, for Nepal.

Travel is making choices. For every opportunity, every adventure, we chose one path instead of another. Why visit Cambodia and not Laos? Japan but not Korea? When will we explore Malaysia beyond Kuala Lumpur? Every experience thus far has been the result of a deliberate decision. Which means, inherently, saying no to other opportunities.

Nepal. I have long aspired to visit the Himalayas. With my family meeting in Europe this coming June I have just short of five weeks surrounded by the world’s highest peaks. Which presents a moment in which Sarah and I find ourselves with different goals. So now it’s just me, alone. Abroad.

Saying goodbye is always hard, even when not forever.

Phnom Penh

Sadness.

Sadness is all I feel.

Some few kilometers south from Phnom Penh lies this nondescript field with a few buildings and a fence surrounding it. A decorated, white stupa stands tall at the center of the grounds. Nearly everyone present walks quietly, solemnly. Choeung Ek is known also as “the killing field,” one of hundreds littered across the country where Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge sent people to die. This is the most recognized of them, a national memorial to the more than 20,000 victims here and some two million across Cambodia. It is a former cemetery; usurped for a horrible atrocity. Tension permeates the air; visitors struggle with emotions. Such a simple place, such a terrible history.

An audio tour narrates, I am alone as my headphones isolate me, walking across desecrated ground. I am trying to understand, to comprehend. How can this happen? Where once stood a building, a sign reads, “Here was where the trucks transporting victims to be executed stopped.” A few meters away, “Here was the place where victims were detained. Usually, when the truck arrived, the victims were executed immediately.” I walk from sign to sign. And then come the graves. One mass grave notes 450 victims buried here, bracelets and flowers line the fence. The next grave, 166 victims without heads. More bracelets, flowers. A few who lived the regime describe their experiences over my headphones.

I want to stop listening. I feel sick.

I have tears in my eyes. Approaching “the killing tree” breaks me; a sign describes this grave where hundreds of women and children were killed. This isn’t war. The Khmer Rouge killed these people for politics, because killing allowed a few individuals to maintain power by holding a nation hostage. I walk carefully to avoid bones and fragments of clothing. Though these murders happened between 1975 and 1979, fragments continue to surface as the ground shifts, unburying the victims. I reach another tree; its sign reads, “the magic tree.” My headphones play music from the communist revolution; songs once projected from this tree to mask the sounds of death. I reach the memorial stupa once more and find a bench. I sit.

My narrator describes Cambodia’s struggle to rebuild, the goal of sharing Choeung Ek with the world so genocide and senseless murders might be prevented from happening again. And he thanks me for visiting. I close my eyes. Tears.

Headphones off, I remove my shoes and walk into the memorial stupa. Music plays faintly. Incense and flowers surround the entrance. And then I see the stacks of bones, seventeen levels of remnants excavated. Upon finding this killing field, archaeologists exhumed 86 of the 129 graves; they stopped to preserve the remaining ones. I realize I don’t know how one ought pay respect. I try to pay attention to all the remains, looking at all the details while still completely silent. I feel numb.

Choeung Ek, memorial stupa

Humanity’s past is fraught with tragedy.

Leaving Choeung Ek, I visit Tuol Sleng Prison. Known as S-21, most victims were first brought here before Choeung Ek. A regime terrified of the West, of intellectuals, tortured its victims in a high school. Here, too, most visitors are silent. The classrooms, used as prison cells, now act as a museum to document what happened. I walk slowly past the walls full of images of the victims; those brought here were documented by the Khmer Rouge through a photographs and a biography. I read about the victims. Whole families were taken. Countless faces stare out at me. Many of the victims themselves were a part of the Khmer Rouge, recruited as teenagers—as children—to brutally murder their own countrymen for a paranoid regime. How could so many lives be destroyed? I take a break every few rooms, story after story weighing on me. Then I continue to walk, to read. These stories are all that remain. I feel numb.

Tuol Sleng Prison