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Yup, Back In America

Ruined church in Ani, Turkey
Ruined church in Ani, Turkey

Sneaking into Armenia to see an ancient castle, hitchhiking back on a German tour bus; drinking and dancing at a Turkish birthday party, trying to con my way into a forbidden football match: it all seems so distant already. It feels like just the other day that I was having coffee on a street front patio when I heard the sound of gas bombs then saw a everyone running in one direction and the riot police storm the opposite way with the sound of a helicopter overhead. Oh wait, that was just the other day. Nothing seemed real or right, and time had lost all perspective. I made it back to America but I didn't feel like I was really there.

I used to daydream about returning to the states and imagine all my thoughts. Will it be like I remember it? Will people recognize me? Will I cry on the plane? I didn't think I would have no emotion. On my first day back nothing felt significant. The country didn't seem different and interesting, nor did it feel familiar and comforting. I was in America, but it wasn't the America I knew. I couldn't find music that inspired me either—old favorites, new favorites, fast, slow; nothing seemed right.

Old castle in the distance, possibly in Armenia
Old castle in the distance, possibly in Armenia

I had met a girl from Miami on a dating website and we were interested in seeing each other, so I asked the uber-creepy question of "What's your stance on harboring vagrants?" She told me that she worked for a hotel and could get me the employee rate, and that was good enough for me. In the free shuttle from the airport to the hotel the radio was on. Like your selfie! With Bosley plastic surgery you can like every picture you take of yourself. Like your selfie! Hashtag... My face puckered a bit. Yup, back in America.

The girl from online was nervous when I met her at the hotel. "You must do this all the time." She said. "Well, I meet strangers all the time, but not quite like this." I told her. I had found some fun things for us to do in Miami, but first I had to get a few essentials. I had done my research and the pre-paid SIM card that I wanted was sold exclusively at Walmart—I couldn't even get it at the network store. Yup, back in America. The Walmart super center was... overwhelming to say the least. Big people were putting big things into their big shopping carts. I had an overwhelming desire to consume. American flags were hanging everywhere and I would have bought one (being in the south and all) but they cost far too much and I still hadn't adjusted to US prices. When I finally did get my SIM card, it turned out that even though my phone was "unlocked" and physically capable of picking up the network, the cell company had decided to broadcast on a different frequency than the standard one in order to encourage people to buy phones directly from them. Yup, back in America.

American flag from the side of the highway in Miami
American flag from the side of the highway in Miami

Perhaps part of the reason that America didn't feel like America was the language barrier. It was almost impossible to get by in Miami on just English. Luckily the girl from online — who was an amazing chaperon — was from a Cuban family and hence spoke Spanish very well. After my traumatic Walmart experience, my new friend and local guide took me back to her family's house for dinner, where her mother had prepared a scrumptious Cuban feast. "This must be weird for you, coming into a family's home like this." The girl told me. "No, not really." I replied. I was starting to see real America, the side of the country I never saw when traveling before. I was beginning to get real excited for my overland journey across the country.

A day later the girl drove me to the edge of Miami and left me on the side of the highway, just as I had asked her to do. It took me 30 minutes just to walk from the turnpike she dropped me at to the one heading in my direction. Man, everything in America is huge! Literally one minute after she had left me, and no more than a few yards from that spot, I came upon an American flag on the side of the road. Score! Good thing I didn't buy one at Walmart. I got to a spot which I figured would be as good as any I could find, and began to wait. And wait. And wait. Thousands of cars went by, and no one even looked like they were considering pulling over. Every single one of the vehicles that passed that I could see into—for I couldn't see into many on account of the tinted windows—had extra space, and usually quite a lot of it. Yup, back in America.

Street art in Tampa
Street art in Tampa

After three hours on the side of the road I started using my phone too look for possible ways to get to the airport. Forty five minutes into looking for options and not coming up with anything, a vehicle finally pulled over. I grabbed my bag and rushed up to the car. Inside was a seventy year old guy, all by himself. He said he could take me almost to Tampa, so I hopped in. Being originally from New York and just down in Florida for retirement, the man's first language was English, which was a huge relief. The man took me to just south of Tampa and dropped me at an on ramp to the highway. He figured I wouldn't have as much trouble catching a ride the further north in Florida I went.

About thirty minutes later a car pulled over. There was also a solo driver in that car, but this time it was a petite Colombian woman who spoke very little English. She told me all about her travels and I'll be darned if she hadn't been to the half of the world I hadn't. She said that in Colombia she would pick up hitchhikers all the time. Go figure. She dropped me at a strip mall off the highway just north of Tampa. While I was standing on the side of the road in the morning I had run out of water, so I figured I'd take this opportunity to buy more. As I walked toward a gas station I came upon a man wearing a large black sombrero and holding a sign for Pier One Imports. "Nice hat" he said to me, noticing my slightly-goofy-but-not-too-crazy sun hat which I picked up at a thrift store in Miami.

Me: I was going to say the same to you.
Man: So, you homeless too?
Me: Ummm, yeah, I guess I am.
Man So, you ridin' with the truckers?
Me: Nah, can't get to a truck stop.
Man How much you carrying?
Me: Ummm, forty pounds. (I was guessing since I only knew my packs weight in kilos)
Man Looks like fifty to me. (He was right)
Me: Do you know where I can get some water?
Man: It's pretty rough out here. I hope you carry a knife or a gun for protection.
Me Oh, I do. (Thinking of the paring knife in my pack which I use for veggies)
Me Is there water at the gas station?
Man Yup. Public bathroom. If you need a bottle, go for the large Powerade

I got some water then walked to the on ramp to the highway to wait. Three hours passed and nothing. What are all these gun-carrying muscly men in their muscly cars worried about from me? All two thousand people that passed me up couldn't have been in that much of a rush. Around five o'clock I again began looking for ways out of my situation. I contacted a CouchSurfer in Tallahassee who I had been in touch with, and he posted an open CS request in the Tampa area for me, explaining my situation and listing my phone number for people to get hold of me. While waiting for that to hopefully work out, I contacted some of my friends to see if any of them could help me out. My friend in Austin who I was on my way to go see, checked plane tickets and found a bus stop five miles away and told me the route I could take to get to the airport. By seven o'clock I had been contacted by one guy from CS but I had no way to get to his location, so I decided to start walking for the bus stop. A couple miles later I came upon a group of cops loitering on the side of the road. They were curious about me, so I figured I'd spare them the awkwardness of the approach and went up.

Me: Howdy.
Officer: Where are you coming from?
Me: Side of the road by 74 and 581.
Officer No. I mean where were you this morning?
Me: Miami. I was trying to hitch to Tallahassee and wound up here.
Officer Where are you from?
Me: Madison, Wisconsin.
Officer Where are you going now?
Me: Trying to get to a bus stop so I can go to the airport.
Officer: So... you're legitimately homeless?
Me Ummm, not really. I have a home, it's just not here.
Me Say, do you know of any other way to get to the bus stop?
Officer We can't give you a ride, if that's what you're asking. We get in a lot of trouble for that.

The Henry B. Plant Museum in Tampa
The Henry B. Plant Museum in Tampa

No sooner did I get to the bus stop than a guy from CS contacted me and said I could come stay with him in downtown Tampa. I walked another mile to get to a different bus stop, then grabbed the last bus into town. The hour-and-a-half ride through Tampa was colorful to say the least, complete with a crazy woman on the bus with a towel on her head swatting and yelling at things that weren't there. I had been up since 5am and I didn't reach the man's house until almost 10pm. The first thing I did upon getting situated was buy a ticket to Milwaukee for early the following day. It turns out that in my exhausted flurry I accidentally bought a ticket for the evening instead of the morning.

I stayed up until almost 3am talking with my host who had just gotten back from Italy a few hours prior! He was a public speaking professor at the local community college. I've had just the best luck with language-based professors on this trip. The next day my host had to work so I explored the city on my own. I got a burrito to-go for lunch. It came wrapped in paper, inside a plastic container, inside a bag, with all kinds of accessories which I didn't use. Yup, back in America. I walked through the charming old Ybro neighborhood then went back to his house to collect my things. My host met me at the airport and we had a snack before my flight.

Me and my brothers
Me and my brothers

The flight back to Wisconsin was fine and my older brother picked me up at the Milwaukee airport around midnight. Throughout my entire life whenever I would take a journey, no matter how small, I would always feel relieved when I was back in Dane county, but for some reason I didn't get that feeling on my way home. The next morning I went over to my moms house, where I was born and raised, for breakfast with my mom and brothers. Though it was wonderful to see everyone and everything, it still didn't hit me that I was back. Then my mom and younger brother and I went to do something I hadn't done in about two years: play pinball. I learned something that afternoon: my mother is a pinball wizard. She absolutely crushed me and my brother.

Then I went back to my old house, where my friends were living and where my cat was still sleeping on the steps. That's when it hit me. That's when I realized I was back in town. Perhaps it was seeing the last place that I lived, or my cat, but something made it real. That's when it got overwhelming. I still don't feel like I'm really back, but I guess that will come with time. Now that I'm back the most important thing is for you to come visit! This is an open invitation to the world to drop by any time. I've switched my CS status from "traveling" to "hosting" and while I'm not permanently domiciled, I've always got places to stay in Madison. Give me some time to process things and settle in and I'll run an AMA (Q&A for my older audience). In the mean time, continue being wonderful and keep in touch!

Soundtrack: All Things Go (Chiddy Bang)
4 comments

Gentlemen of The Road

Ishak Pasha Palace
Ishak Pasha Palace

Many people asked me "How will you know when it's time to go home?" and I always responded with "I'll know," which I'm sure was as unsatisfying and outlandish to them as it was to me. I figured it was kind of like love, which no one could properly explain and people told me I would "know when I feel it." For traveling I assumed that moment would follow something bad happening, but it didn't. When my pack got lost on the way to Nepal I thought "I'll keep going with the cloths on my back if I have to." When ten porters with foot long machetes jumped me in Vietnam I thought "That could have happened anywhere, I'll just move along." I never considered that it would be something positive that would make me feel like it was time to return to the states.

There were many times on my trip where I would arrive in a city expecting to stay one day, then meet a wonderful person and wind up staying for a week. The Kurdish/Zaza guys that hosted me in Mardin were great, and every day they kept telling me to stay one more day so I could experience else amazing. One morning over breakfast the guys were telling me about a place called "White Waters" and told me that they would go there the following day. A picnic adventure to a place which numerous people in Kurdistan told me I must go to sounded great, but all I could think was I should keep moving along. I've been here too long. and then I told them "I can't. I have to go." They asked me where I had to go and I said "Home. I should go home." I wasn't looking at any of them when I said it, in fact I wasn't looking at anything — I was just staring off past the wall of their cave.

I hadn't processed what I was saying and I didn't want to make a big decision like buying a ticket across the ocean without giving it some time for thought. I decided to move to another city and sleep on it. The boys were sad to see me go but they understood that I had to, and they connected me with a friend at my next destination. As a continuous traveler I've been called a "gentleman of the road," but I'd like to talk about a different kind of gentleman of the road: the type of gentleman I meet on the road. The guy that my friends in Mardin put me in contact with in the capital of Turkish Kurdistan didn't speak much English and I originally took him as a dumb brute. He had a big head which somehow seemed pixelated and reminded me of a character from the Nintendo64 game Golden Eye. He was large and muscular and when he walked one shoulder would sway forward with the opposite foot. The first thing he asked me when we met at the bus station was "Drugs?"

My host atop the old city wall in Diyarbakir
My host atop the old city wall in Diyarbakir

He told me that we were going to go back to his house to drop off my pack, then go out and meet some friends. I'd been working on my technique for not overeating at Kurdish houses, but I found it completely ineffective with my host who would end meals by getting up, command me to "finish it", point at all the remaining food and then walk out. After a standard local dinner we went to go meet my hosts friends. We walked a circuitous route through dark alleys that had the letters "PKK" spray painted frequently on the wall. My host had an earnest concern for my comfort and my physical safety. When crossing the street he would frequently take my arm as if I were a gentleman and he were a lady. When other men have touched me on this trip it often made me feel uncomfortable, but not with him. Perhaps it was the way he led, one step in front, glancing side to side for cars.

We met one friend at a time until our group numbered five, then walked to a large field of tall grass in the center of town. What is this park doing here? I wondered. We walked to an arbitrary point then sat in a circle. One of the friends took out three poker chip sized discs of hash and handed one to me to inspect, meanwhile he and another friend got to work rolling doobies. Now I've been around some serious drug users in my life, but I've never seen splifs as large as these guys rolled; and with what skill they joined six rolling papers and emptied three cigarettes by the light of a cell phone! When he was finished rolling, the man traded me the disc of hash for an enormous joint. I lit it and took a puff; it instantly hit me like a buckwheat pillow to the face. I coughed and handed the joint to my friend, and it glowed like a torch in his hand.

A sliver of moon was just over the buildings on the horizon and as my eyes adjusted to the darkness I noticed other groups of people sitting in the grass as well. "Everyone come here smoke hash" my friend told me. "It's ok. You safe." And I did feel safe when I was with him. He had told me "This is my city" and I believed him. One of his friends, who reminded me of my high school quarterback, showed me how to be double-jointed. When both joints eventually landed on me, I tried it. The guy on my right kept looking more and more like Spock until I was sure that he was wearing a Star Trek uniform. I couldn't shake the feeling that the moon was setting despite it only being 9pm. It's just the drugs and parallax fucking with you. You're probably slouching more and hence the moon in reference to the horizon and your friends big head doesn't appear as high as it did before. Soon there was no angle I could sit where the moon was visible. The guy on my left showed us his fucked up ankle, which explained why he had been walking with a limp. "JESUSCHRIST! You should get that looked at!" I didn't mind making an exclamation like that when I knew that no one around me spoke English well enough to understand it when said quickly.

We finished the three discs of hash, then went in separate directions. My host and I went to get something sweet — at my request — and then to his friends internet cafe to hang out. The night wound up being way less crazy and eventful than I was expecting. The next day my host took me around the rustic old city which had a bad ass stone wall around the old part like an ancient capital of China. My host turned out to be much smarter and kinder than I had originally taken him for, and I really enjoyed his company. Then I got that feeling again, the feeling that I should keep moving on. I decided I'd give hitchhiking a break and took a bus to the city of Van, famous all over Turkey for its delicious breakfasts. One of the reasons I didn't hitchhike was because I was sick of struggling to get over language barriers, and the nice Kurdish man sitting next to me on the bus who spoke almost no English and had brought absolutely nothing to entertain himself with kept trying to talk to me. Other than that it went fine and I arrived in Van in the mid evening.

Standard Van breakfast, the local cheese and honey (lower left) was to die for
Standard Van breakfast, the local cheese and honey (lower left) was to die for

I had no friends, no hosts in Van, but that was intentional. I was looking forward to the solitude. I wanted a shower, some internet, and some space to myself. I guess that was too much to ask (at least for a reasonable price). What bothers me about most of the places I've been to on this trip is the way the locals don't care when things are broken. Three times in a row the hotel owner either didn't know the wifi password or the wifi didn't work. When I'd confront them about it, they would just say "No internet" and leave it at that. No "Sorry, let me try to fix it" or "Sorry, that's because XXX" or "It'll be back XXX," even in Turkish. I would tell them that I needed to find somewhere else to stay then and they would just watch me go. That was it. They didn't want my money, and none of the places had more than a few guests. I finally found a place with internet, but no running water. I was loosing my patience. I'd been loosing it since I started the trip.

After a couple days of solitude and good breakfast, I got that anxious feeling again. I wanted to go the quickest and easiest way to my next destination, and since there were no direct buses I decided I'd hitchhike. I went to the edge of town not taking a moment to notice what was around me as I walked down the street. I was unenthused and uninspired. I just wanted to get to Dogubayazit. I didn't have much water but I figured that I could just buy more when I ran out, since anyone who picked me up was likely to be going somewhere with people, and where there's people there's water. The first person to pick me up was a regular seeming guy in a van. He was bad at communicating. He didn't use any meaningful gestures or try to use common vocabulary to help me understand him. I asked him the usual questions and he told me that he had three kids. I tried to just look out the window, which revealed an increasingly dry and desolate landscape, but he insisted on talking. He asked me if I was married, as most people do, and I told him that I wasn't. Then he said something I didn't understand at all and laughed, and put his hand on my leg. He left his hand on my leg and continued speaking. Suspecting that something was amiss, I used to my phone to translate "I'm heterosexual." I showed it to him and he laughed and then grabbed my chin softly as if to admire my face. I pulled my head away and told him to let me out. He motioned that he would let me out just up the road, and drove on.

Over the next hump in the road there came a break in the median. He pulled over and let me out, then switched to the other side of the highway and headed back toward town. I was left standing in the desert with no water and very few passing cars. I felt like a fool for getting myself into that mess. I didn't want to hitchhike anymore, but there were no buses or dolmuses to flag down. Eventually an old trucker picked me up and I felt comfortable in his cab. Unfortunately he was only going to a quarry up the road; no water there and again I was standing in the desert. When hitchhiking in Cappadocia with an older American guy I learned the art of the understanding wave. Just as a car was about to pass and it was evident that they weren't pulling over, I would switch the "thumbs up" to a "no hard feelings" open palm. I think that accepting gesture changed the mind of a family driving a black Lexus, because they stopped in the middle of the highway and backed up to get me. The father was driving and the mother was in the back with three kids, so I got to sit up front. Again I felt comfortable since I was riding with a family.

Mount Ararat over Dogubeyazit
Mount Ararat over Dogubeyazit

Two nice guys with a large gas canister strapped in the front seat picked me up where the family dropped me off. The landscape between there and my destination began to get more green and mountainous. The two guys, of which one was Turkish and the other was Kurdish, spoke a little bit of English and that also put me at ease. As we got closer to Dogubayzit I could see mount Ararat towering out above the surroundings: it was striking. I could tell that it was beautiful, but I felt no awe. The guys stopped at a hospital to drop off the gas canister, then asked me if I wanted Turkish kebab. I said "sure" so they brought me to the center of town, exactly where I wanted to be, and found a nice place for lunch. After a feast, which they of course paid for, I set off searching for a hotel. Every gust of wind or passing truck would send a wave of dust into the air as I walked down the streets. I finally found a place to stay and all I wanted to do was sleep. It was 4:30pm and I knew that I should go to the palace outside town and then watch sunset over Ararat, but just didn't feel like it. I pushed myself to go out anyway.

Ishak Pasha Palace was 6km outside town and since there was no public transport I figured I'd walk and try to hitchhike. Few cars were going that way and they all passed me by. One car with three young guys in it gestured the question "Just one person?" to which I gestured back "Yes, just one" and then they sped off. The car itself seemed to mock me with its motion. Two minutes later I saw the car again, parked on the side of the road. The driver motioned me over and then spoke in clear English. "Hello. Are you going to Ishak Pasha Palace? I'm a survey engineer and I'd like to talk with you. I can take you there. I have to do a quick job, but if you go to the cafe one hundred meters up the road and wait for me, I'll be there in ten minutes." I told him I would wait, though something inside me said I shouldn't. I found the cafe and ordered a glass of tea, then did some writing. As soon as I was finished with my letter the man appeared. "I wasn't sure if you'd wait. That's one thing I like about foreigners: they do what they say they will do. It's not like that in Turkey." He paid for my tea and then we got into his car.

On the ride up the mountain he told me that I reminded him of his friend from Lithuania and that that's why he stopped. When we got to the palace he paid my admission, which involved getting my money back from the ticket taker and handing it to me. He seemed to know everything about the place. He had way more information than was on the signs or online. I see old castles and palaces and ruins all the time, and Ishak Pasha was truly exceptional. It had indoor hot water, one-way glass, and remarkable stonework. Just before sunset we went higher up the mountain to an old castle where we sat and drank juice. The guy told me about his Lithuanian girlfriend and how on their first date she didn't show up so he called her and when she spoke in English he didn't understand anything she said but he was too embarrassed to admit it so he just waited there uncertainly. The hair of my beard prickled a little when he spoke. I could feel his anxiety and I understood why he wanted to improve his English.

After the sun went down but there was still light in the sky, he took me to an ancient cemetery which was recently unearthed. Then we stopped for food — even though I was still full from the enormous lunch — because they had a local specialty which he wanted me to try. The whole time I was with the man I shamefully kept waiting for "the rub." Does he want to sleep with me? Is he gonna ask me for money or give me a sob story? There was nothing. He paid for everything then brought me back to my hotel and said good night. He just wanted to talk, like he told me at the beginning. He was a true gentleman of the road, and I couldn't help but suspect him. Before we parted ways he told me that if I stayed in town longer I could live with his family and do fun things with him and his friends. I knew that I should stay, to get the culture and the experience, but I said "I can't." It was like the "I can't" back in the cave in Mardin, said without conscious thought. That's when I knew it was time.

A gentleman of the road in Dogubeyazit
A gentleman of the road in Dogubeyazit

The next morning after breakfast I checked flights back to America. The cheap flight I had found a couple days before was still there. I went about buying it like I was preforming a routine action online, with no unnecessary haste or delay. When the purchase was complete I had no sinking feeling or feeling of euphoria; very much like when I bought my departure ticket for this trip. I think the decision had been a long time coming, even though in both cases it didn't take long for me to pull the trigger. A big part of the reason behind why I decided to go home was a progressive exhaustion. Do you know the last time I got a good nights sleep? No? Me either, but it was back in the states. I'm tired. I'm tired of getting cat called and of being stared at. I'm tired of being a gentleman of the road. As I suffered through Walden while waiting for a ride in the desert, I kept thinking: you can't learn about the world in seclusion. You need experiences to fuel your thought, and you can't ignore the human or the social element of life no matter how much you want to. And that's why I travel. I travel to learn and to grow; and I have, leaps and bounds. Then it hit me: all the knowledge and growth is useless if you never settle down and use it.

I don't know what the future will bring. I'm flying to Miami on the 17th (because it only cost $250 to get there from Turkey) and then I may hitchhike to Texas to visit my friend before heading back to Wisconsin. I feel the need to see America the same way I saw the rest of the world. To be honest, I don't have a very good concept of the states and I can't compare it to the places I've been. I'm excited to see the country through new eyes and from a different angle. And I'm sad that I won't have that understanding of Europe or Africa, but I wouldn't really learn about those places if I was just trudging through, avoiding the experiences and the culture. So I'll stay in America for a bit, maybe just through the Wisconsin fall, but I'm certain that at some point I'll make it over to that part of the world, even if it's in a series of shorter voyages.

Soundtrack: Homeward Bound (Simon & Garfunkel)
6 comments

Forbidden Sugar

Heart and arrow on a street post in Mardin
Heart and arrow on a street post in Mardin

Forbidden sugar can take many forms, from irregular blocks of small white crystals smuggled into Turkey from Iraq, to your Kurdish host's Muslim sister. I never know whether the next forbidden delight will be sprinkled with pistachios or wrapped in a scarf, but I know I've got a sweet tooth that tempts me into trouble. This story starts on "one of those days," days when you go out to buy credit for your phone at 2pm and wind up dancing in a Kurdish wedding party on the border with Syria later that night.

The alleys of Mardin were narrow and uneven, and always met at sharp irregular angles. Puddles of garbage collected in the wrinkles of the walls, decaying into black stains which only inorganic material can produce. I had my eyes fixed on the ground and was pondering cultural differences as I walked toward the main road in search of a place to buy more credit for my phone. I would have gotten out of his way without even noticing my host if he hadn't called my attention upward. I was happy to see him though he was partially responsible for my solo errand — a task I wasn't looking forward to doing alone.

After a couple days of my host failing to follow through on his offer to help me buy more credit for my phone, I decided to take the mission upon myself and headed out in search of a telecom shop while he was in school. I tried not to let my conflicting emotions show when I met him in the alley, and I don't think it ever crossed my host's mind that I might have been frustrated by the situation. Since he was on his way home from school and had nothing planned for the afternoon, he offered to take me around the city and help me buy more credit.

It was perfect timing for a sunny spring drizzle when we entered Mardin's underground bazaar. Then it was only a damp dash into the old mosque to see a hair of the beard from the prophet Muhammad. When the rain stopped we completed our mission of buying more credit, then went to my host's favorite cafe to sample some Syrian wine. The cafe, which was a prominent hangout for members of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), was on the second floor of an old stone building and featured a balcony overlooking the Mesopotamian plain, and a small library set in what looked like the living room of a castle. The shrill odd-tempoed sound of traditional Kurdish music seemed to double-back on itself in the vaulted ceiling of the cafe. The waitress, who had a keffiyah tied around her head like a pirate might wear it, brought me a slightly transparent glass of red wine. I took a couple sips to taste it properly. Alcohol always hits me hard in the middle of the day.

Me and my hosts in Mardin in the courtyard of their old house
Me and my hosts in Mardin in the courtyard of their old house

After I was fully conscious of what just happened, my eyes shifted rapidly from face to face. Another one of my hosts in Mardin, Sugar (his real name which sounds a little like Sugar is hard for most foreigners to pronounce, though it seems to be one of the only names I can say correctly), had whirled up to our table with two cute girls and they had all taken a seat. My hosts had been making future plans for me as though I was intending to stay with them forever, so I mentioned that I was hoping to go to Hasankeyf on the following day. No one seemed to hear me and they carried on their conversation in Kurdish. Then Sugar said "C'mon, lets go to Nusaybin." To which I responded "Ummm, ok..." not knowing where or what Nusaybin was, but generally being up for anything. I suppose I was a little concerned since my torso was the first thing to turn toward the exit, as if hoping to persuade my feet to follow.

Without stopping at home we were on our way to the bus station. Sugar explained that his sister was planning to go to Hasankey the next day and that she was currently in Nusaybin and I could sleep at his friend's house there that night and go with his sister in the morning. As we grew closer to the village we grew closer to the border with Syria. Eventually we were alongside a two-layer barbed-wire fence speckled with watch towers and tanks. It was dark by the time we arrived in Nusaybin and it looked like we were driving through a ghetto. Like many homes in Asia and the Middle-East, the outside of Sugar's friend's house was no indication of what lay within.

The Kurdish home was instantly overwhelming, with bright clean walls and lots of family (though almost anything would have overwhelmed me at that point since I hadn't mentally prepared myself when I left the house that morning). I was shown into a standard Kurdish living room which consisted of nothing but wall-to-wall carpeting, a few cushions, and a flat-screen TV. As I sat in the corner, knees bent and feet on the floor, the family gathered round. I put on my lingering dog smile, the type that pulls the the corners of the lips back toward the ears instead of toward the eyes, and is meant to convey interest while at the same time answering all questions with "I don't understand." It was kind of like the smile that George W. Bush used to wear. By the time I noticed that all the faces around me were men and babies, the women reappeared with dinner. It was the same local specialties I'd been eating since I entered Kurdistan — roasted vegetables, farmers yogurt, fresh bread — just slightly more delicious.

Me and Sugar's sister with traditional headdresses on
Me and Sugar's sister with traditional headdresses on

After dinner, Sugar and his friend and I went to meet Sugar's sister. She was in an outdoor cafe with a group of her friends when we arrived. She was stunning. Her head scarf seemed to frame her gorgeous face. I've never seen subtle makeup emphasize both strong features and soft skin so well. We took a seat at their table and ordered some chai. No one except Sugar spoke English. Sugar had to return for school the next day and I could tell that his sister was asking him "How are me and your friend going to communicate tomorrow?" I grabbed her attention then quickly pointed back and forth between her and me, then motioned to my mouth and shook my head side to side with a smile. She seemed more amused than comforted, but I figured that was ok; so long as I kept her and her friends entertained I had hopped they wouldn't mind if I tagged along.

That night my actions became more uninhibited, like those of a child, as a child isn't afraid of appearing a fool. I decided it was my opportunity to put any doubts about my ability to communicate with the girls to rest. One of the men in the group began speaking toward me, then ended a sentence with "Kebab." I leaned forward and very seriously said "lahmacun," as if raising the stakes in a poker game. The group burst out laughing. Apparently that man was a famous lahmacun chef in the city and worked just down the street. He insisted that we go try his food at once. I hadn't learned the method for not overeating at Kurdish meals yet so I was still very full from dinner, but the man was making an offer I couldn't refuse.

We somehow transitioned from walking down the street to sitting on little stools in a closed-down promenade. Before I knew it there was a kebab in my hand an a cup of some weird mixed juice on the pink plastic princess table in front of me. On our walk to the street stand I had asked my friend how to give my compliments to the chef in Kurdish, one of the most useful things you can learn in any language. Throughout the meal I exercised my ability to name the local specialty from almost any city in Kurdistan whenever someone would mention its name, a skill the people seem to love. For better or worse I think that tipped the group off to my interest in food.

We got up from our stools and started walking through the city. Without my noticing it, one of the men from the group would slip behind every street stall we passed; then he'd hand me some food as I walked by. I wondered, Are these guys the proprietors of these stalls, and, if not, who is? And why isn't everybody singing like this is a musical? Muscles stuffed with rice, pop corn, cotton candy. I started angling my body away from the stands we approached as if to deny their existence to my stomach. Sugar's sister spoke eye language very well and we were already starting to become friends. I pointed at her, then at myself, then made the joggy-arm motion and lowered my chin and raised my eyebrows toward the lead couple in the group, giving both the question and the desired answer in the same motion. Like that we were in a race toward distant music.

The shrill sound from the cafe in Mardin was filling the street in Nusaybin as we came upon the Kurdish wedding celebration. The women of the immediate family were dressed in traditional costumes, but no one else seemed to have changed out of their day clothes, including a few farmers and gorilla warriors. Kurdish dancing consisted of standing in a straight line and holding pinkies, then shrugging your shoulders and moving sideways in a five-step rhythm. It appeared as though no one could be bad at it, but somehow I could throw off the rhythm of an entire group. I hadn't dressed to attend a celebration (when I'd gone out for phone credit several hours earlier), and I certainly didn't plan to be part of someone's wedding video, holding pinkies with a member of the close family and dancing in the street.

Out of embarrassment I eventually stepped out of the line, then Sugar motioned that it was time to go. On the walk back to the car we passed a shop selling ice cream.

Sugar: Do you want ice cream?
Me (quickly and firmly): No.
Sugar: Have you try Turkish ice cream?
Me (earnestly): Yes.

Sugar began ordering us ice cream. We got in his friend's van and listened to a techno-remix of Katy Perry's Hot 'N Cold as we sped through the streets.

We woke up early so Sugar could make it back to Mardin in time for class, and so his sister and I could get an early start on sightseeing. Sugar's sister and I were joined for the day by her two female friends who also wore head scarves. Hasankeyf, an ancient city in the I-kid-you-not Batman province of Turkey, was situated on the banks of the Tigris river and surrounded by caves carved into the bluffs. The main part of the ruins were closed for restoration, though I'm not really sure to what end since the entire area is due to be flooded by the Ilisu Dam, which my friends in Mardin described as a deliberate slight by the Turkish government in order to prevent tourism money from going into Kurdistan. I and the girls lingered through the city making sure to take in whatever sights we were allowed.

Caves in the bluffs of Hasankeyf
Caves in the bluffs of Hasankeyf

The girls spent most of their time taking pictures in contrived poses, and I spent most of my time trying to think of funny things to pantomime. Communication between me and the girls was going just fine, at least as far as I was concerned. The girls would sometimes try to tell me something and I would understand completely but give them a funny answer. When standing on the edge of a cliff they tried to tell me "Danger! Be careful!" to which I responded "What? You want me to strike a pose?" and then went up into an arabesque, a visual running joke within the group. By the end of the day I would point at a doorknob in some old building and make wild gestures like an adolescent Jim Carry on a sugar high, then use my phone to translate "This is of no significance." The girls seemed to enjoy my presence, and Sugar's sister's eyes became more deep.

That night I returned to Mardin and the girls went back to Nusaybin. On the following day I went to school with the boys at their small and basic university. I always thought the most distracting thing you could get away with doing to a teacher while he or she was talking was shoot them a menacing stare, but now I know that a lustful glance can be even more overpowering. I'm making more eye contact with this girl than anyone else. Do the other students notice? The hottest girls in each class kept giving me the sticky eyes — eyes that stayed on me even when someone else was talking. These girls are only nineteen. I thought. Wait, is that actually a problem?

Sassy cowboy hat pose
Sassy cowboy hat pose

That night we had a gathering at my host's house, which included several students from the university as well as Sugar's sister and her friends. After dinner I entertained the guests — particularly the cute female ones — with all manner of miming and clownery, from nonverbal jokes to dancing with broomsticks (and a few well placed "Goodbye cruel worlds," one of the only phrases I know how to say in Turkish). An attractive girl in a cowboy hat — which I made good use of throughout the evening — took a particular liking to me, and I to her. Everyone seemed to be having a good time except Sugar's sister, whose eyes adopted the glare of jealousy. As I was running out of props and material, the party relocated to the cafe where my adventure had started the day before.

The cafe, and the walk there from the house, provided new inspiration and I was able to keep things going, but in between each shtick I would crash, often drifting off into an unentertaining gaze. My caprices, both long-lasting and short, were becoming more drastic — even the flashes of people in my transient life were starting to notice them. Was I just a junkie, living from sugar high to sugar high, slipping into depression between fixes? Had my tolerance risen to insatiable? As I walked home from the cafe with the group of people including Sugar's sister and the girl with the cowboy hat, I felt terribly alone. I got no sugar that evening and I had no cup of tea to drop it into if I did. I also got the feeling that even if I had sampled a forbidden sweet, it would have only been as satisfying as one of those marzipan-covered ornamental cakes.

Soundtrack: Hot 'N Cold (Katy Perry)
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The Kurdish Way

Nice old Kurdish couple that gave me a lift from Kizlar to Bozova
Nice old Kurdish couple that gave me a lift from Kizlar to Bozova

As I sit in the back seat of cars, or the cab of semis, or crammed with two other people in the front of trucks, sometimes crawling and sometimes flying down the road, I struggle to communicate. My Turkish is limited to talking about family and work, and discussing ages and saying that things are beautiful or delicious. The conversations are fairly noneducational and repetitive, and the rides are often slightly uncomfortable. It's draining, and I often think to myself Why don't I just take the bus? Then I remember that it's supposed to be about enjoying the journey and learning about the culture and that when I put myself in these situations I increase the chances of having an adventure.

I decided that I was going to detour from my route between Sanliurfa and Diyarbakir to visit Mt. Nemrut, where in the first century BC an egotistical king had his likeness carved into a statue overlooking a beautiful valley alongside statues of prominent gods. The days had been getting progressively hotter and there continued to be no shade when I waited alongside the highway for rides. As I awkwardly ran with my pack toward the old run-down car on the side of the road, the back door opened up. When the drivers open the door before you get to the vehicle, it's almost always a good sign. It means "We're here to help. It doesn't matter where you're going, you can come along in our direction for as long as you'd like." A nice old couple greeted me when I got inside. I thanked them in Turkish, then began the usual effort to communicate; it was harder than normal.

Kurdistan banner, V for Vendetta poster hanging in hosts house in Mardin
Kurdistan banner, V for Vendetta poster hanging in hosts house in Mardin

Eastern Turkey, northern Iraq, northwestern Iran, and northeastern Syria is the home of an ancient group of people called the Kurds. They were there long before the borders of today, and now they're a repressed population in most of the countries they occupy. "There is no Kurdistan" a Turkish man told me when I asked him about it. Why does that sound familiar? I remember, it's a lot like all the Israelis that told me "There is no Palestine." For various reasons the Kurds got the shaft when the Middle East was divided up and they were left with no land of their own. The Kurds have a rich culture with their own food, music, and language. That's why I was having a tough time talking with the old couple in the car. When we reached their village they invited me for chai, and usually I take all offers like that—and I get those types of offers a lot—but I was hoping to make it to Nemrut for sunset and I had gotten a late start in the morning and wasn't moving as fast as I had hoped I would.

I got picked up by the next car going by, which was a driven by a Kurdish geography teacher. With some effort he told me that he knew all fifty states. Before I could formulate the question of why someone who barely speaks any English knows all fifty states, he reminded me that he was a geography teacher and started listing off state names seemingly at random. The expanse all around us was rolling green countryside. It had the collective quality of wonder of the Mongolian outback, where the lack of salient parts somehow summed to a great whole. We could see the teachers stated destination on the horizon when his car broke down. It was 4pm and the city was 20km away, and Nemrut was another 90km past that. I considered trying to find another ride and pushing on for the summit, but decided that I was "in this together" with the driver and I would wait with him for help to come. So, I did what I would do if I broke down along the side of the highway with my father: I took out a disc and asked if he wanted to toss. There was a slight breeze but he learned to throw quickly and really enjoyed it. A "mechanic" (read: some guy with a few tools) came from the city and did some stuff under the hood, then limped the car into town.

Roving French minstrel I met hitchhiking to Nemrut
Roving French minstrel I met hitchhiking to Nemrut

As we were pulling into Adiyaman the mechanic turned the car off onto an access road, then started driving into the industrial district. I was debating asking to be let out so I could try to hitchhike further or take a bus into town, when he pulled the car up to a bus parked in front of an auto shop. The geography teacher got out and spoke to the people on the bus, then ushered me on board. A guy in the front seat said that he would help me find a place to stay in the city. The bus meandered through the outskirts of town before finally arriving at the city center. When the time was right, the guy sitting next to me gestured that we should get off. He motioned for me to follow him and grabbed my day pack. After a few blocks we were at an old pansiyon. They told me the price and showed me a room. It was an unventilated closet with the smell of bad plumbing permeating from the bathroom, but I didn't want to be ungracious so I told them I would take it. It's the nights I spend alone in rooms like that which are the toughest. As I sit in the dimness knowing that there's no English speakers for kilometers, I tell myself that bright things are on the horizon.

The next day was Friday so the city buses weren't running. After a few kilometers of walking down the main drag on the way out of town, a trucker picked me up. We stopped for chai at the next city over, then he left me on the side of the highway where he had to turn off. A catering truck was the next to invite me in. The last time I got picked up by a catering truck they stopped at a construction site along the highway to deliver food, and the boss invited me to lunch with them. I wasn't so lucky this time. I walked through the little city that the men dropped me off in, and as soon as I reached the end of town a beater stopped to pick me up. I crammed in the back seat with a French guy playing the baglamas. He was hitchhiking to Nemrut as well. The car dropped us about 15km down from the top of mount Nemrut. There were about four cars going on that road per hour, so we decided we better start walking. A couple kilometers later, a new Mercedes stopped to give us a lift.

Lunch with Kurdish road-workers near the top of mount Nemrut
Lunch with Kurdish road-workers near the top of mount Nemrut

The man inside was Kurdish, but spoke English fairly well. "Nice car" I told him. "It's normal" he replied. He told us that he owned a construction company which was building a new road to Nemrut and that he was going to inspect it. He also told us that he was PKK. "One mans terrorist is another mans freedom fighter." The PKK is a militant group which protects the Kurds, primarily in Turkey. I first heard about them from my friend Joshua who had snuck into PKK territory with a journalist to speak to their leader a few years earlier when the situation was far more tense than it is now. Since then I've heard lots of conflicting things about the group from people in Turkey. We arrived at the new road which was probably 5km away from Nemrut, and the man invited us to come have a snack and some chai with his workers. We had a few hours before sunset so we decided to join him. He talked to his workers, then said he was going to walk the road for a bit while they prepared the food and tea. As we strolled down the path cutting into the valley he told us about all the places around the world that he'd been.

Like most people in Turkey, he asked me my religion. After trying to avoid the question for a while I told him that I had no religion. He mimicked the action of shooting me with a machine gun, then said "I kill you." I'm used to minor threats on my life, so I responded dryly and with a flat face "For god? You will kill me for god?" He chuckled and said "No, but this is PKK territory. It's better you say you're a Christian." He described himself as a "Soft Muslim" which I learned was his way of avoiding telling people that he wasn't religious. He was powerful and well-to-do, so of course he drank alcohol and did what he wanted on Fridays. After a meal of explosively delicious chicken cooked over a wood fire, the man drove us to the top of the mountain, said goodbye, then promptly turned around and drove back down.

Statues on Mount Nemrut
Statues on Mount Nemrut

Nemrut wasn't what either of us were expecting. For one, we thought there'd be places to sleep at the top, but even with a tent there was nowhere to stay, and besides it was far too cold for camping. We walked to the statues; they weren't nearly as expansive as I had envisioned. Over one thousand years of nature had taken its toll and left many of the statues toppled and the rest of them headless. It was approaching sundown and there were few people at the top and no through-traffic (being the end of the road), so we were a bit concerned about how we were going to survive the night. A nice Kurdish man approached me at the statues and offered to take my picture with my camera. I asked him where he was going that night and he said Sanliurfa. I was hoping to continue to Diyarbakir, but I didn't know if I'd be able to make it that night, and I didn't have anywhere to stay there if I did make it, and I didn't want to spend another lonely night in a dingy pansiyon. The French guy was hoping to head in a different direction, but we both had to get down the mountain and to the main road before we could get anywhere. I asked the man if he could give us a ride, at least down the mountain, and he said yes.

I called my CouchSurfing friends in Sanliurfa, and the guy that had hosted me a couple nights before said that he could host me again. It felt nice to be somewhere familiar when I arrived back in his neighborhood. We went out to a cafe that night and had some traditional Turkish coffee, which was presented at the table with much pomp and circumstance, then did what most people were doing and played some backgammon. In the morning we had a common local meal of roasted eggplant and anaheim chilies. One thing that I really like about Kurdistan is the neighborhood bakeries. Every couple blocks there's a baker who makes fresh local bread all throughout the day. But that's not his main purpose; his main purpose is to bake things for the community. In my experience, the bakery is always next to a little market where fresh vegetables can be readily obtained. Having roasted vegetables is as simple as grabbing a few eggplants and peppers from the market then going next door and having them baked. The last time I was in Urfa I made the local specialty of lahmacun with some guys from CouchSurfing by getting some onions, tomatoes, and peppers from the market then walking next door to the butcher who cut some fresh piece of meat off of a hanging carcass and ground them all together, then proceeding to the baker next door who rolled out bread and spread the mix on top and baked them for us while we waited. While standing outside the bakery we saw women approach with platters full of delicious meat or vegetable dishes to be dropped off and picked up in half an hours time. The community ovens are extremely cheap to use and if you buy bread to eat with your meal then they don't charge you anything for cooking your food.

Neighborhood bakery in Sanliurfa
Neighborhood bakery in Sanliurfa

After breakfast I went to the edge of town to wait for a ride to the mountain-top, Kurdish city of Mardin. A nice guy in a pickup truck stopped and motioned me in. After about an hour he pulled into a service station and told me that we were just stopping for a glass of chai with the owner who was a friend of his. He introduced the short man with hazel eyes as Johnny-Usta (spelled Can Usta in Turkish). The truck driver liked to say "Johnny-Usta", using it as both a description and an explanation, perhaps because he didn't have much else to say. With communication being tough in Kurdistan I decided I should probably learn Kurdish. I quickly found out that learning Kurdish is tantamount to learning "Native American". The Kurds are actually a bunch of different tribes united by region and oppression. I liked Johnny-Usta; he had an unashamed bewilderment toward me. It wasn't so much a curiosity about who I was, as what I was doing there. It's a look I've seen on the faces of lots of locals in odd places, which is simultaneously unseen on my face but usually present in my mind. Also, I find Middle-Eastern men with any eye color other than black or brown to be very striking and handsome. To heat up the water for tea, Johnny-Usta stuck two stripped wires connected to a hot plate into the socket of an outlet and then jammed a screwdriver in to keep them in place. "Johnny-Usta" the truck driver said, smiling and lifting both his hands and shoulders.

A different truck driver took me the rest of the way to Mardin, then helped me find a city bus which would take me to the stop where I was supposed to meet some guys from CouchSurfing. The stop was on the opposite end of town and the bus got stuck in traffic jams on narrow cobble-stone streets a few times, but I eventually made it. My hosts in Mardin were five young university students living in an over nine-hundred year old house. Four of them were Kurdish and one was an even more minor minority called Zaza. They were the kind of curious and ambitious young people that are rare these days, the kind that reads book for pleasure. They loved to host because they were eager to learn English and exchange culture, and they had characteristically Kurdish hospitality which is comparable to that of the Syrians or the Sikhs. That night after dinner we sat out in the tiny courtyard of their historic house and talked.

Some guy named Hassan, Can Usta (Johnny-Usta), truck driver
Some guy named Hassan, Can Usta (Johnny-Usta), truck driver

One of the guys looked just like a Kurdish Christian Bale, and he told me that we were drinking "forbidden chai" with "forbidden sugar" and sitting under light from "forbidden power". The tea and sugar were smuggled from Iraq, and the power was being illegally tapped from the municipality. He was proud of the "forbidden goods". One of the other guys told me how he was in danger of being thrown out of the university because when asked on a test why the Chinese built The Great Wall of China, he wrote "To keep out the Barbarian Turks." The Zaza guy was working on a speech about how to tie a shirt around your face leaving only a slit for your eyes in case the police come. I asked the boys about being Kurdish in Turkey and they told me stories about how it makes you a second class citizen. Then the guy who looked like Christian Bale told me "Kurdish, Turkish, not important. What important if you have money. The problem Capitalism. A poor Kurd and poor Turk have many the same." I remembered the man in the Mercedes. It's the same everywhere I thought.

Kurdistan was definitely my favorite part of Turkey. The people were the friendliest (and most likely to pick me up), and the cultural exchanges were the most enriching. I found myself enjoying the journey, and enjoying the destination when the destination was only the name of a city that someone told me to go. I learned a lot about the Kurds and feel poised to learn even more. I saw the effects of Capitalism and modern culture, and I met some very interesting characters. I'm glad I came and I think I'm going to explore Kurdistan a bit more before moving on.

Soundtrack: Work It Out (Jurassic 5 ft. Dave Matthews Band)
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Closer to Syria

My wonderful host at a Syrian run hummus/falafel restaurant in Gaziantep
My wonderful host at a Syrian run hummus/falafel restaurant in Gaziantep

I spent five days in Gaziantep living with a Syrian guy who's a professor of English at the local university. The day before I left, his brother who was still back home got shot in the neck. My host delivered the news calmly, and I received it dispassionately. It's not that my host didn't care—it was clear that he loved his brother very much—and it's not that I didn't feel for him; we had both become desensitized and detached. Every night before bed the guy from Syria would show me random footage of the day's devastation. They don't show videos like that on TV and I never bothered to seek them out online. He showed me a clip of a block in his neighborhood which had once been shops and apartments and was now a pile of rubble.

The nice Syrian kid that helped me find my hosts apartment the first night I arrived in Gaziantep had shown me a similar video when I hung out with him a couple nights later, except the pile of rubble was once his house. He showed me where his room used to be, and in the background I noticed a dying snake plant on the remnants of a concrete staircase going to a floor which no longer exists. Everywhere I went in Gaziantep I kept running into Syrians.

Me and one of the English classes at Gaziantep University
Me and one of the English classes at Gaziantep University

One day my host took me to the university to meet his classes; about 7% of the students were Syrian. The kids showed varying interests in me, but without a doubt the ones who were most curious and friendly, and who spoke the best English, were the Syrians. No one complained about the trouble in their mother country, they just showed me the kindness and hospitality of a guest in their home. For the first time however, a foreign conflict became real for me. The Israel/Palestine issue seemed distant when I was in the center of it, but what was happening in Syria was all around me when I was just outside.

I needed that; I needed to calibrate my understanding of the world. I heard about something in the news and then I caught a glimpse of it in person. The world isn't faceless for me anymore. The earth is smiling, but I wish there was something I could do to smooth the uneasy wrinkles forming around the sides of its lips. My hosts brother is supposed to be ok despite getting shot in the neck, but things for Syria aren't so hopeful. It's a shame I didn't get to see Syria in its heyday; the people are so wonderful I'm sure I would have liked it a lot.

Soundtrack: Universal Soldier (Buffy Sainte-Marie)
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Faces Of The Road To Gaziantep

My hitchhiking route from Cappadocia to Gaziantep
My hitchhiking route from Cappadocia to Gaziantep

It had been taking about five rides with an average wait time of 45 minutes between them to hitchhike any sizable distance in Turkey. I knew that to go from Cappadocia to Gaziantep in one day would be ambitious, but I had a good feeling about it. To give me the best possible chances of getting a ride, I shaved the night before and switched into my nicest shirt. I woke up before sunrise to watch the hot air balloons flying over Cappadocia, then returned to my hostel to get ready for the journey. I ate some breakfast, filled up my water bottle, and applied a thick layer of sunscreen. With a full charge of emotional energy and an accepting smile, I walked to the edge of town and began to wait.

The road out of Goreme to the road out of Derinkuyu (36km/22mi)
The road out of Goreme to the road out of Derinkuyu (36km/22mi)

I think I've only ever been picked up by a car with no men in it once before, when hitchhiking from Chiang Mai (North Thailand) to Bangkok, and that lady also stopped to get her hair cut. The three ladies in this car were sisters from Ankara, in town to deal with some legal stuff after their parents death. Two of them spoke English reasonably well, and all of them were very friendly. The driver told me that they wanted to make a 30 minute stop in Nevsehir to get their hair cut, but that they could take me a bit further on my way after that if I wanted to wait. Though it was early in the morning and I had gotten my first ride fairly quickly, I was already anxious about the long distance ahead of me. On the other hand, I would have had to navigate two junctions on my own if they left me in Nevsehir, and I knew it would be easiest if they could leave me directly on my path. Given that it had been taking around 45 minutes to get rides in Turkey, I figured I'd go with the bird(s) in hand and wait it out in Nevsehir.

They parked at a hair stylist then told me to meet them back there in 30 minutes. We exchanged contact info just in case, then I started wandering aimlessly through the city. On my way back to the salon I passed a pide shop selling the most delicious looking fresh bread. Though I already had some food for the journey, I couldn't resist buying a fresh pide for only 1tl ($0.50 US). When I got back to the meeting point the women were still inside. Part of me knew that it wouldn't take 30 minutes for them to get their hair cut. I walked into the beauty parlor and sat down to wait. The young male stylist and his two even younger assistants instantly began swooning. The three women laughed and talked with the men in a not unobvious fashion about me. I recognized the Turkish words for "American" and "Beautiful" and lots of points and gazes in my direction. One of the assistants came and sat next to me, using his phone to translate for a conversation. He seemed to speak enough English for what he wanted to say, but I think he preferred the phone because the visible text was silent. After cutting the women's hair but while we were still waiting to go, the head stylist came and whispered something in my ear which I couldn't make out but which I understood to mean "I'm gay". As if he had to tell me. He also gestured that the previous barber had done a bad job on my hair and shouldn't have taken it up so high around my temples, which I was also already aware of. Do you know how hard it is for men to get anything other than a buzz-cut when traveling and without speaking the local language? After over an hour of waiting we got back in the car and were on our merry way. The women were nice enough to drop me at the far side of the town they were going to, which saved me the trouble of crossing it on foot.

Outside Derinkuyu to just a little further outside Derinkuyu (4km/3mi)
Outside Derinkuyu to just a little further outside Derinkuyu (4km/3mi)

This was the point in the story when the traffic really began to drop off. While trying to walk to a better location for hitchhiking, these three nice guys pulled over to pick me up. They didn't speak any English and the car was a complete junker, but they seemed nice and unassuming. They didn't take me as far as I was expecting, but they took me as far as they could before turning onto an access road leading off into the desert.

A little futher outside Derinkuyu to highway toll near Nigde (36km/22mi)
A little futher outside Derinkuyu to highway toll near Nigde (36km/22mi)

Driving slow and cautious when there was virtually nothing that could happen on an empty road through the plain, this nice old teacher picked me up. We were getting along fine with the combination of my Turkish and his English, but he felt compelled to call his English-speaking friend for translation. That may have been for the best since for once, a foreigner translating over the phone understood that I was trying to hitchhike, and convinced the man to leave me on the side of the road rather than a bus stop in the center of a town.

Highway toll near Nigde to off ramp to Bor (14km/7mi)
Highway toll near Nigde to off ramp to Bor (14km/7mi)

The previous man went a little out of his way to drop me in front of a tollbooth on a large highway headed in my direction. I think we were both a bit worried that the road wasn't operational yet since there were no cars in sight and no one manning the tolls. The guy got out and walked around the tollbooth and to the office in the back. During that time this nice Kurdish man drove by and I flagged him down. The previous driver spoke to him for a bit (I guessed explaining my situation) and then motioned for me to get in. This was another case when I thought I'd be going a little further than I did, but I generally take any ride heading in my direction. After taking this mans photo he shook his head "no" then put on a smile and held up the peace sign for me to take it again.

Off ramp to Bor to off ramp near Dokuztekne (227km/141mi)
Off ramp to Bor to off ramp near Dokuztekne (227km/141mi)

I was practicing my juggling and listening to my audio book when these two truck drivers came by. I've taken to listening to audio books while hitchhiking since they allow me to keep my eyes focused on the road. I usually wouldn't juggle, but with the infrequency of vehicles on the highway and the distance I could spot them from, it gave me a good chance to practice and still put the balls away with enough time to hold out my thumb. I really lucked out with these guys. They didn't speak any English but they were headed a long way in my direction and removed the obstacle of me making it through the largest city on my path. They had a portable electric water heater in the cab, which they used to make tea. I was glad that I had my pide to offer in return for a cup of chai.

The demeanor of the guy in the back in the picture above reminded me a lot of George Costanza from Seinfeld. At one point the men decided to switch drivers and began to make the change while going down a mountain, but then I think the driver, remembering my presence and seeming a bit more responsible, decided to just pull over for a minute. After a few hours of riding with the guys I began to get hungry. I took out one of my red bell peppers and offered it to the men. They didn't want any, so I ate it like an apple, which they seemed to think was odd. I had a few other snacks, all of which they declined with the hand motion that they were full. Then, shortly before letting me off, they stopped for lunch. The little truck stop had all their dishes on display, but rather than consult me the men just ordered. First came three plates of assorted vegetables, which I wasn't sure if we were supposed to share as appetizers or save for the main meal. I waited for the men to make a move. Finally one of them snacked on something, so I followed suit. Lunch was six of the most juicy and delicious chicken drumsticks I've had on this trip, with a side of roasted tomato and Anaheim chili. I never know how hard I'm supposed to push when it comes time to paying for a meal. Like usual, the driver insisted on paying and I got the impression that if I was any more forceful it would have been insulting.

Off ramp near Dokuztekne to ramp of Nurdagi (79km/49mi)
Off ramp near Dokuztekne to ramp of Nurdagi (79km/49mi)

This was definitely the weirdest ride I had all day. As I was crossing to the center of the fork in the highway where the previous two men dropped me off, this guy pulled over to pick me up. When I was getting into the cab he motioned for me to put my pack on his bed. I motioned that I could just put it in the middle, which is where I usually put it, and then he patted firmly in the back as if to say "Put the pack, on, the bed." So I did. Of all the people I've met on this trip, the driver of this truck was about the worst at the language-barrier-communication-game. I'm sure I'm partially to blame because I'm good at grasping at straws and reading subtle hints in the other persons body language which tell me to either blindly agree or disagree, giving them the impression that I understood. That only works however, when the other person doesn't demand a response. Seemingly everything this man barked was followed by an inquisitive glare. The usual trick of responding in random English, which makes the other person either smile and laugh in acceptance of our mutual failure, or mimic my response in a continuation of the game, didn't work with this man. He just seemed... distressed.

At some point on our journey he grabbed a bottle of something and started spraying it on the dashboard. Then he handed it to me and I motioned the question "Should I spray my side of the dash?" and in a very non-joking gesture, he motioned for me to spray under my arms, then kept his gaze fixed on me. Ouch dude. I didn't think I smelled that bad. I acquiesced, if for no other reason than to get him to look back at the road. When it came time to drop me off I asked if I could take his picture and he motioned "No" so I started putting my camera away, then he grabbed my camera and pointed at himself, then outside. He put on his dress shirt (he had just been wearing a wife-beater) and hopped out for a photo with his truck. He made one more unintelligible demand, then in a final effort of futility, shook my hand, did the traditional Turkish salutation of touching heads on either side, picked my sweater up off my bag and handed it to me, grabbed my crotch, then turned around and got back on the truck. I stood there in shock for a fraction of a second, then let my bewildered countenance expand into laughter and an confounded shake of the head.

Ramp of Nurdagi to rest stop down the road (14km/7mi)
Ramp of Nurdagi to rest stop down the road (14km/7mi)

This guy technically didn't stop to pick me up. He stopped to take a piss on the side of the road, and after I noticed him sitting in his truck for a bit, I went to ask for a ride. Like the previous guy, I thought this man was going all the way to Gaziantep, which I finally realized everyone was just calling Antep. After just a few kilometers he asked if I wanted to stop for chai. I motioned "Sure, what the heck?" so he pulled off at a little cafe full of truckers drinking tea. We each had a glass, then another. Just as I was finishing my second cup the man started talking to other people in the cafe. Then he suddenly motioned for me to quickly get up and follow two guys that were headed back to their truck. I got my things out of his cab and went over to where the two men were standing.

Rest stop down the road to highway just north of Gaziantep (60km/37mi)
Rest stop down the road to highway just north of Gaziantep (60km/37mi)

The guy sitting in the middle had stubby fingers and reminded me of a family friend called Uncle Phil. He spoke roughly as much English as I did Turkish, which multiplied our power of communication. He told me that the driver was from Iran and I was glad to be able to thank him in Arabic. Though we only shared about twenty words in common, the man in the middle was eager to speak to me. He was telling me about Islam. He had a joyous and serene manner when he spoke, that of genuine love and amazement. His speech, which was far less intelligible, reminded me exactly of the very nice Jordanian guy I hitchhiked with at the Dead Sea. I've had many people lecture me about the wonders of god, pointing at everything as an example of his existence, and usually I think "You've drunken some sort of poison. You're delirious." But not with this man, or the man from Jordan. It made me happy.

He was talking about how Islam is all about love and peace and accepting all people and religions, even the Jews. He condemned violence and emphasized the importance of the heart. One of my fathers is a Sufi. When the man in the middle asked me to repeat after him, I completed the sentence before he was finished: "La ilaha illallah". He showed me some ceremonial videos on his phone, which at very first looked like terrorist warning videos, but then I quickly came to recognize from my childhood. These Muslims are just singing and dancing in circles. This guy is talking all about love, peace and acceptance. Hey, I wonder if he's a Sufi? The man took off a silver ring with two moon and stars on it, and gave it to me. He motioned for me to try it on my pinky. It was too big. Then he motioned to my ring finger. I tried it on and it fit. I took it off and handed it back to him. He wouldn't take it. I persisted but he refused. Shortly afterward they pulled over and let me off. I thought these men were going into Gaziantep, which is why the previous driver had made the hand off, but they left me at the junction at the far north of town.

Highway just north of Gaziantep to bus in north Gaziantep (6km/4mi)
Highway just north of Gaziantep to bus in north Gaziantep (6km/4mi)

The first thing I noticed when the truck drove away was Orion starring down at me from the sky. That particular constellation reminds me of a good friend back home. Empowered with my new silver ring and the presence of my friend, I started walking toward the city, determined to do whatever it would take to make it home that night. The first truck to come by pulled over to pick me up, even though he didn't have much time to see me and there definitely wasn't a good place to pull over. I like to think the silver ring on my outstretched hand caught a glimmer from his headlight and attracted his attention. By the time that I had hurried up to the front of the truck, the man had crossed the seats and opened the door. He motioned me in with a calming smile.

This man was also Kurdish, and he was perhaps the friendliest of all the drivers. No more than one minute after picking me up, we got stopped at a police checkpoint. It was no matter. The guy driving had nothing to hide and shortly we were on our way. He didn't speak English but he made it clear that I was invited over for dinner with his family. I wanted to take him up on the offer but I had already made arrangements with a guy through CouchSurfing and I didn't want to keep him waiting any longer. The driver wasn't going into the city and my host's house was at the far end of town. The nice Kurdish man said he would drive me to the bus station and help me get a bus. Then he took out some money and tried to give it to me for the fair. I successfully refused to take his lira. When we arrived at the first bus stop at the very north of town, two dolmus's (Turkish van-buses) were sitting there waiting. The man motioned for me to wait, then got out to check where they were going. A minute later the man came rushing back, motioning for me to quickly get my things and go. I snapped the photo above as I was rushing to jump on a dolmus that was starting to pull away. I can't help but wonder how through all my travels, vehicles always seem to be leaving at exactly the moment I'm trying to board them.

Bus stop near Gaziantep University to my host's house (1km/.6mi)
Bus stop near Gaziantep University to my host's house (1km/.6mi)

As I rode through the entire city of Gaziantep, I had a wonderful feeling of homecoming, like returning from a very long voyage. I got off the bus near where the GPS on my phone told me my hosts house was. I started walking in what I thought was the right direction, only to realize that the GPS didn't sync up with the directions he had given me. I was standing on the sidewalk texting my host and trying to get my bearings when a nice young man approached and asked in English if I needed any help. I told him the landmark I was looking for and he pointed me in the right direction. Then he offered to escort me there. I took him up on the offer. He told me he was Syrian and then my host called. My host was also Syrian and the guy escorting me offered to talk to him to make sure we were going the right way. The Syrian kid took me to the door, exchanged contact info and then said good night. After 9 rides and 13hrs I had made it the nearly 500km/310mi from Cappadocia to my destination in Antep. I met wonderful people, including a couple Kurds and a Syrian, and acquired the ring of man. I could have taken a bus, but it's about the journey. Besides, for the cost of a ticket from Cappadocia to Antep I can buy a kilo of the finest of their famous baklava.

Soundtrack: Born To Be Wild (Steppenwolf)
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Sex, Love, and NSA Cuddles

Suspiciously phallic rock formations of Cappadocia
Suspiciously phallic rock formations of Cappadocia

"You should go." My tone betrayed the words. She knew I didn't want her to leave. It was past the first call for prayer again and she lived with her family. That wasn't it though. The longer she stayed and cuddled, the harder I knew it would be to eventually say goodbye. That morning I bought a bus ticket out of town. I wanted to stay another night, if only for another surreal sunset, but my heart told me that it was time for me to leave. As my bus was pulling out of the station I sent her a message to say goodbye. She said her English wasn't good enough to describe how she felt, but the truth is that I speak English natively and I still couldn't find the words. It was harder to say goodbye to her than to any other girl I've met on this journey, yet I knew I shouldn't linger.

One of the few "profits" for me on this trip came in the form of a Norwegian man who looked like a Norse god, with blue eyes and beautiful flowing blond hair. It was in an old government run youth hostel in the Sultanate of Brunei. I had spent twenty minutes circling the building trying to establish that it was the place, and to find an entrance, when a French kid showed up and helped me get inside. It was an old concrete building that looked like it was made by the Soviet Union and which was designed to host the entire school population of Brunei. When the government wasn't using it they let it be, and backpackers snuck in and slept there, each showing the next how to get in.

Though there were 200 beds in the building, the five of us that were there that night all stayed in the same room. We exchanged the usual information—where we were from, where we'd been, where we were going—and then the Norwegian guy started to talk directly to me. "It sounds like you're pretty open-minded and adventurous" He said. "I am" I replied proudly. "Are you looking for love?" He asked, in the manner of a genuine question, not a shady offer. "No" I told him. I didn't feel I was emotionally ready for a relationship at that point in the trip; my heart was still longing for women back home. Also, I didn't want to be put in the position of choosing between a potential partner and continuing my travel. "Do you sleep with the local women?" He continued. "Oh no" I told him. I had more fear about sleeping with the locals than I did about finding love. Angry fathers/brothers, women trying to "trap" me. Besides, I like women that are curvy and strong (in all ways) and I'm not one of those guys with "a thing" for Asians. "It sounds like you're not that open or adventurous after all." He concluded. I accepted his words with a nod and let them sink in throughout my trip. A lot has changed since that night over a year ago, and now I'm actively looking for love and more open to sleeping with locals, but only for the last couple months.

Sunset over Antalya, which the picture doesn't do justice to
Sunset over Antalya, which the picture doesn't do justice to.

"OK Cupid?" An American girl I met a couple weeks ago asked after seeing the OKC icon on my phone. "Yeah, I do online dating." I told her. I figure; why not take advantage of the fact that I'm traveling all over the world and look for love wherever I'm going? And I do mean love. I never thought I'd like one night stands, and before leaving on this trip I confirmed that I didn't. Unfortunately, that's what I'm confined to these days. "Why don't you just bring your soul mate with you?" I would in a heartbeat... if I could find her... and she wanted to drop everything and travel. Or I could settle down with her. But she's still anonymous, so it's moot. She's not the girl from the opening paragraph—as much as I liked her, my heart told me that she wasn't the one. I think there's something comforting in the thought that there's someone out there for you, even if you'll never find them. It's depressing to actually try to find "the one" and feel like you're not getting any closer.

People often ask me "Don't you miss home?" I tell them "I miss having a home. I miss the things that go along with a home, most notably the stable relationships. Not just with women, with everyone." But I do miss dating women. I don't miss the game or the wasted time, but I do miss the result. When I say the "result" I don't mean the sex. I've had one night stands on this trip, but probably far far fewer than you think. Perhaps I've had a couple handfuls of women on this trip, though I honestly couldn't tell you exactly how many. Not because it's too many to count, but because almost none of them are worth remembering, and a few of them I'm glad to forget. Is that really even so many? How many times have you had sex in the last year and a half? Unfortunately I haven't had the privilege of sleeping with the same woman more than a couple times. The Vietnamese girl I traveled with for over a month? The German girl I met/traveled with a few times? No, I didn't have sex with either of them. In fact, I think there's only one girl I've laid which has been mentioned in any way on the blog.

I've turned down more offers than I've taken up, and I often find myself internally conflicted about making moves on women, usually for the same reason. No, not because I'm Casanova and there's a line of women down the street (ok, recently that has been a bit of an issue, but previously on this adventure it hasn't). Because it's not worth it. Because the meaningless sex is empty and usually only mediocre at best, and when it's not it's even harder to leave if my heart isn't telling me to stay. Unrequited meaning is even worse. So I often forgo.

I'm sure this peacock from the Bodrum castle has no trouble picking up birds
I'm sure this peacock from the Bodrum castle has no trouble with birds

But I do have needs. You'd probably be surprised by the amount of NSA (no strings attached) cuddles that I've had on this trip. They've come at different times in different ways for different reasons. "I can be a perfect gentleman" I've assured more than one lady who's taken me into her bed. Of course on one or two occasions I couldn't resist following that quickly with a raised eyebrow and "But I don't have to be." The verdict is still out on whether or not my wit does more harm or good. I've pondered alone and sometimes with one of these cuddle-buddies "Why isn't this more common or socially acceptable?" There's no doubt that humans need touch, and society seems to accept, if only by intentionally not looking, that people are looking for sex, so why isn't it conventional to look for cuddles? On the CouchSurfing website there's a field listing if it's a "Shared sleeping surface"—that's always one of the least reliable fields in the listing.

"CouchSurfing, isn't that mostly for sex?" No ...but, sometimes. I've personally never slept with a host, though the opportunity has arisen a handful of times. Both with men and women there's often an uncomfortable awkwardness in determining if the host/surfer is interested in having sex, and that alone prevents me from surfing sometimes. I've thought about putting in my profile: "I'm not looking for sex." But then I think Maybe I am? If I was into the host, I'd sleep with her. And I'm clearly not the only person to feel that way. There's new startups designed to remove the ambiguity. LoveRoom is like CouchSurfing but with sex implied. Skout is supposed to be like Tinder or Grindr, but for travelers. Unfortunately neither of those services are internationally popular enough, or fundamentally sound enough to be useful for me yet.

So where do I go if I do want to meet babes? To where the women I'm attracted to are. In Asia that usually meant where the travelers were. I could score all kinds of tail if I spent my time on the party beaches. But those kinda places aren't my scene and aren't why I travel. If I'm not gonna be experiencing the country I'm in at all, I might as well just go home (at least then I could see my friends and family as well). I just went to the town of Olympos in Turkey for specifically to meet women—unfortunately it wasn't quite the season yet. Another type of place that I'm not dying to go to but which in my experience is always packed with hot babes are catastrophe memorials. The Holocaust museum in Jerusalem, the Killing Fields in Cambodia and the Hiroshima Memorial were all packed with superfine ladies, but I just couldn't bring myself to hit on any of them. It seemed somehow... tactless.

My friends from the last couple days at our favorite drinking spot
My friends from the last couple days at our favorite drinking spot

It was easier when I wasn't looking for love and was scared of sleeping with locals. Now I have to balance travel and romantic interests, and I've got the burden of dating to add to the stress of travel. Maybe things will get better for me as I move into Europe and the style of women and dating are more familiar to me. Maybe some clever entrepreneur will create a CuddleSurfing or OKCuddle app. I guess I'm just gonna continue going through the world, trying to be good to it and to myself.

I Wish I Had A Child

I wish I had a child, so the art of pinball wouldn't die.
Someone to share my love with, to reach that rolling high.

Be it boy or girl, I'd love it quite a bunch.
I'd teach it to use, mostly one flipper at once.

I wish I had a child, someone to ride the ramps.
To rise to the level, of pinball's greatest champs.

I wish I had someone to share the greatest pleasure of them all.
The entertaining, interactive, elusive multiball.

I wish I had a child, for this reason alone.
To justify me having, a pinball machine at home.

This article, as well as a few previous ones, was written at the request of one of my readers. If there's something you'd like to know more about, please don't hesitate to write me an email and ask.

Sometimes I'm completely uninspired when it comes to the article titles and soundtrack (...and content), and sometimes I'm overwhelmed with ideas. The last soundtrack was a cop out. A lot of times the soundtrack has special meaning to me, or someone else from the story, which you may not understand. Choosing a track for this article was particularly tough. Strawberry Fields Forever, Shasta (Carrie's Song), Eye Of The Tiger, I Feel Good, Would You Go To Bed With Me were all prime candidates. Three Sunsets in Antalya was the runner-up title.

Soundtrack: Change In My Life (m-pact)
3 comments

Not So Fast

My Izmir friends at Pergamon with me posing as a statue in the background
My Izmir friends at Pergamon with me posing as a statue in the background

I hitchhiked to Ephesus in a rape-van full of manikin torsos driving 90kph. I hitchhiked back in a BWM blasting techno at 180kpm.1 I was making day trips from the lively coastal city of Izmir, where I had been CouchSurfing for almost a week. My host was active and had plenty of free time, so most of my excursions were made with him and often times his lovely group of friends. We bicycled almost 200km (124 miles) and visited the ancient city of Pergamon together.

One thing I noticed during my travels in Turkey was the prevalence of cats. Both in the big and little, and the new and ancient cities, healthy cats were roaming all about. Lounging on the ruins of Ephesus as if they owned the place, were all manner domestic-breed cats. Then I started to notice the food and water left out for them in the streets. There seems to be a nearly direct correlation between the condition of the local felines and the modernness (in Western standards) of the country. In the less developed countries, even those with generally "good" treatment of animals (practicing Hindu and Buddhist countries, I'm talking about you), the cats eye's were wide with fear and their movements inconspicuous.

Cat sleeping on the ruins of Ephesus
Cat sleeping on the ruins of Ephesus

But Turkey's not quite "West". Then again, it's not quite "East" either. During my travels in China I consoled myself by thinking "This type of overbearing governance is an anachronism, no modern country would move in such a direction of censorship." But I was wrong. Due to a series of leaked recordings about corruption at the highest level of the Turkish government, Twitter, and intermittently Facebook and Youtube, were blocked. A national election for local offices was held while I was in Izmir, but things largely went unchanged. Why had things gone unchanged? Everyone around me hated the prime minister and wanted to leave Turkey to escape the politics. Maybe I was getting a biased view from the liberal metropolises that I had hitherto been living in.

It was time to move on; to see more of the country and to meet more of the people. One my favorite ways to see a country and to meet the people is to hitchhike. There's some social construct which prevents most people from socializing with strangers on a bus, yet there's some awkward tension which obliges people to attempt to communicate when they're sitting alone in a car together, even when they don't have a common language. What I found, more than in any other country I'd been to, was that there was no common language. In fact, there was only one out of twenty rides in which the driver knew more English than I knew Turkish.

Two of the guys I hitchhiked back from Ephesus with
Two of the guys I hitchhiked back from Ephesus with

I played the game with the all the drivers that necessity explains the rules to and intuition devises a strategy for. Sometimes they would start, sometimes it would be me. "How do I explain 'speed trap' without using any words?" or "Will he understand that I'm trying to say 'I'm fat and this soda is too small'?" The game keeps you sharp. It exercises your creativity. Once when I guessed that the driver was asking me about my work, rather than pantomiming hands at a keyboard, I acted out digging a hole. "Is it wrong to say that I was a gardener? Was I? The memories of being a programmer and being a gardener are equally distant and equally vivid in my mind. I suppose it doesn't matter because based on my action he'll probably think that I was digging ditches on a chain gang."

The drivers were as generous in Turkey as they had been in other countries. I found that my customary rule of declining the first thing they offered me and accepting the second didn't work so well. I was obliged to take both the first and second item of food or drink that was offered, with the exception of cigarettes which they all respected my abstinence from and which would then prompt them ask (nonverbally) if I mind if they smoked. On my way to Pamukkale I had a guy whom I wasn't even sure understood what I was doing (hitchhiking), nonetheless where I was going, find me another ride at a stoplight and facilitate a hand-off with the other driver down the road.

Travertines of Pamukkale
Travertines of Pamukkale

Pamukkale was famous for its travertines (beautiful limestone hot springs), and after checking into a hotel following a long day of travel I decided I'd go take a look at them before the sun went down. Sneaking into Turkish attractions is so easy that I couldn't resist taking a closer look. I walked around the guard booth, then to the top of the travertines, then took off my sandals and walked down through the springs. It wasn't as beautiful as the pictures had made it out to be, but it was still a cool thing to see. I went back to my hotel and was about to eat dinner alone when two girls came walking through the lobby. "Excuse me. Are you going to dinner? I was about to eat alone. Would you mind if I join you?"

The girls and I went to a nearby restaurant and enjoyed a Turkish meal set to the soundtrack of the movie Grease, mixed with the occasional James Brown or R.E.M. hit. After dinner I suggested that we walk to the travertines to see them lit up at night. When we got there, the girls—who had only just arrived and were seeing them for the first time—said they wanted to "touch the white stuff." So, we snuck back in. When we got to the base of the spring we took off our shoes and began to climb. A few minutes later we heard a whistle. We looked back and saw a guard. "We can outrun him. If we make it to the top I know another way down." I told the girls. We took off in a dash through the springs, the chase being projected to the city via our shadows on the large, white, limestone walls. "Are you sure we can get down from up there?" one of the girls asked. "Sometimes you gotta get up to get down. So get on the good foot and lets take it to the bridge." I told them.

Pamukkale springs at night
Pamukkale springs at night

As we neared the top I looked back and saw that the guard was no longer pursuing us. When we came out of the the light, a different guard came out of the shadows. Then five more guards came out of the woods behind him. The lead guard started speaking to us in Turkish, then eventually, realizing that we didn't understand, suggested "No ticket?" There was nowhere left for us to run, and we all knew it. The girls and I instinctively huddled together, as a pack of wild game might do when a group of predators is closing in around them. The lead guard pointed at me, then gestured at his motorcycle. I started walking for the bike, and the girls tried to follow. He gave them the sign to stay. "I will return for you." I said with the loftiness and bravado of a knight riding off for the sake of a maiden. The guard got on the bike, and I mounted in the back. As we raced off helmetlessly into the night, "Hopefully!" was the trailing word I called out to the ladies.

The guard brought me to the park entrance were I was induced to pay for three tickets. The price was 20 Lira each, and when I paid with a 100 they gave me back the correct change. The guard did a burnout U turn, then I hopped on back of his bike and we zipped back to the girls. They were noticeably shaken, sitting alone and not knowing what was to come, and they were in disbelief when I told them that we were free to go. The guards were nice guys and the springs at Pamukkale were much more majestic at night than they were during the day. Having seen the travertines twice already, I decided to push on the following morning.

Nice truck driver on my way to Bodrum
Nice truck driver on my way to Bodrum

As I stood on the side of the road and watched car after car drive by with lots of empty seats, I started to wonder if I should get a bus. It had been taking much longer to catch a ride in Turkey than it had in any other country I'd been to, and at the same time there had been more traffic and more viable rides than anywhere else. It was always just as I was about to throw in the towel and start walking to the nearest bus station that someone would eventually pick me up. It was always just after thinking "I'm gonna start taking the bus from now on" that a ride would remind me of why I love hitchhiking. I'd spend four hours crawling up a mountain in the cab of a semi-truck, jokingly gesturing to the driver "Should I get out and push?", then I'd zip around the curves on the other side in the front of a Mercedes-Benz. The truck driver would buy me lunch and the Mercedes would stop for tea. When I was discouraged that I wasn't learning enough from my encounters, two Turkish guys with excellent English picked me up and took me all the way to my destination, sharing their political beliefs and helping me improve my Turkish along the way.

1I'm not trying to make light of rape, I simply don't know a better term for the particular type of van I was riding in. I searched online and even read a few articles about them, but alas there is no better, quickly understood term. Oh, and 90kpm ≈ 55mph, 180kph ≈ 112mph.

Soundtrack: Summer Nights (Grease)
2 comments

Not What I Was Expecting

Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul
Sultan Ahmed Mosque in Istanbul

My heart raced as the attractive Israeli security officer with a star of David pendant peering down her breasts revealed by the dress shirt with one-too-many buttons undone came back to speak to me. I untwined my legs and shifted my balance to two feet to prepare for what ever she had to say. "After talking it over we've decided that you shouldn't get on that plane...you should stay in Israel and come back to my place." Unfortunately that's not what she said, but I think she was into me. They singled me out for the "special treatment" at the airport, I'm pretty sure because the sexy officer just wanted speak to me. Her questions and eye contact were more fitting for a first date than an interrogation. I took the procedure in good humor and answered everything with a dangerously charming smile. In the end they didn't even search my bag (and I refrained from asking her if I would need to get naked, 'cause it wouldn't bother me...). In the line for gate security a woman came by to check my passport; after glancing at it for only a few seconds she handed it back to me and teased "Creative parents" as she moved on to the next person.

My passport it getting warn out and sometimes the scanners at the border have trouble with it. While nervously waiting to officially enter Turkey, the immigration agent half-mumbled "Are you dangerous?" "Yes" I quickly replied. I mean, No. I mean, oh god. I finished in my head. They let me in but my biggest challenge was still in front of me. While letting two cute Israeli hitchhikers into the back of Omer's Land Rover last week, I hadn't notice my phone slip into the gears of the seat. When I got back in the car my phone was bent, dented through the screen, and never to return. Now for someone who didn't have a cellphone until 2008, and didn't have a smart phone until 2010, I quickly became dependent on my phone at the start of this trip. The prospect of getting from an airport outside town to a residential address in the very center of a dense, ancient city without GPS, calling or a translation app, frightened me more than it should have.

Sunsut over Istanbul and the Galata tower
Sunsut over Istanbul and the Galata tower

I had imagined Istanbul to be somewhere between Beijing and Athens (and I don't mean geographically, because obviously it is). I had envisioned windy, narrow, cobblestone streets with lots of honking and garbage and no intelligible form of public transportation. My expectations were shattered the second I exited the airport. An electronic message board displayed the name of the first place I needed to go. A man in a suit took my bag and put it underneath the bus. What I saw outside the window was... not what I was expecting. The road was lined with well-cared-for, nicely landscaped flowers. The modern skyline was broken only by the sharp minarets of the ancient mosques which looked like missiles bursting out of subterranean silos on their way into the sky. Traffic was orderly. No one honked. The city reminded me of New York more than it did Hanoi. Comfortable sidewalks, well-groomed pedestrians, cleanliness.

I was so impressed with my ability to navigate the city without a phone that I decided to head downtown alone that night. I'll walk the main drag, check out the Galata Tower, then walk across the bridge over the Bosphorus and take a bus back home. My plan broke down at step three. I walked to a bridge in the completely wrong direction, only to get denied entry by a sleepy security guard who only seemed to know the word "Problem". "Do you speak English?" I asked. "Problem." I pointed at myself, then made the little two-wiggly-downward-pointed-fingers motion, then pointed at the bridge. "Problem." I put my tail between my legs and turned around. I wonder what time the buses stop running? I'll goog... I made it home safely, though a bit later than I had expected. One nice thing about being "lost" in a foreign city is that you get to see a great cross-section of it, especially if you heedlessly take shortcuts that you've got no real reason to believe exist.

The next day I went and bought a new phone. While standing outside one of the main tourist attractions in Istanbul and messaging my friend to figure out plans for the evening, a well-dressed man approached:

Man: Are you trying to sell your phone?
Me: No, I just bought it today.
Man: Is it working?
Me: Yes.

[I continued giving the man 10% of my attention while messaging my friend. Then I turned my feet in a gesture to go.]

Man: Do you want to buy a carpet?
Me: I'd have nowhere to put it; I'm homeless.
Man: Start with a carpet, then you'll get a home.
Me: I don't want a home right now, I'm traveling.
Man: You should get a carpet to travel with.
Me: Only if it's a flying carpet.
Man: It is.

I chuckled and moved on. Somehow, that episode was exactly what I was expecting.

Soundtrack: Istanbul (Not Constantinople) - They Might Be Giants
2 comments

Strict Observance

Graffiti on the separation wall in Bethelhem
Graffiti on the separation wall in Bethelhem

The armed guards paid us no attention as we walked through the opening in the observation-tower-capped concrete wall cutting through the desert. "What's that?" I asked, half-knowing the answer. "The separation wall" my friend told me. "Are we in the West Bank now?" I followed. "Well, yes and no." He continued. I was starting a trek through the Judaean desert with an Israeli father and son whom I trekked for a few weeks in Nepal with. They're the two on the right if you remember this picture. The father was a policeman and carried a loaded gun holstered at his waist. We cut off the highway and into a polluted valley in order to lower our profile. After and hour or two of walking we came to the official trail. A few minutes later we were descending toward an ancient spring. "Look water!" The father said. "Yeah..." I responded. "Water! Here! In the desert!" Um, ok. One thing I've noticed about people in the Middle East is how mystified they are by the sight of green things. Often times when I told people where I was from, where I had been, or where I was going, the first thing they would say was "Oooh, it's very green there."

We followed the valley until we came to a different natural pool which methodically filled and emptied itself four times every hour. After ending our trek we hitchhiked our way back to Jerusalem. The father and son I was with thought it would be fun to camp in a large city park. When we arrived at the park around 9pm we found that the main field was in use by a group of guys playing ultimate frisbee under the lights. We put down our things and I went to go join them. We slept that night in the bushes at the edge of the park, then spent the next day touring the old city of Jerusalem. The father, who's fluent in Arabic, took us to a very good hummus restaurant, explaining that the Arabs make the best hummus. That Arabs make the best hummus is fairly undisputed, but if you ask an Israeli where the best hummus in Israel is... you'll probably get an evasive answer, even online. It seems as though the big conflicts that have been around since the dawning of the modern state of Israel (hummus, occupation) have been so well discussed and everyone knows the arguments so well, that no one actually wants to talk about them. Even when I pressed people for opinions they would usually just tell me the general opinions that exist without making any assertions themselves.

River from the Wadi Qelt trek
River from the Wadi Qelt trek

To help form my own opinions about things I made Jerusalem my home base for the next couple weeks. I stayed with my friend Yoel from the Mongolia expedition, who lives in the first Christian house built outside the old city walls. It was a perfect point for me to set out and taste famous hummus, take in modern culture, and make small trips into the West Bank. I visited the ancient cities of Jericho and Bethlehem, went to the community garden and an art exhibition with Yoel's mother, and joined Yoel and his friends for various different happenings like a poetry slam and a hookah lounge. I found the people of Jericho to be very nice, and the city very typical of an Arab settlement. Bethlehem on the other hand, I did not like so much. I found the people of Bethlehem to be jaded and unfriendly. Perhaps they're too used to tourists, or perhaps they're too close to "the conflict". The separation wall runs right through Bethlehem and I biked along side it for a while when I was leaving. The graffiti on the wall really moved me. One of the lighter slogans painted on it said "Make hummus, not walls".

There was a large cultural event coming up in Israel which I was getting very excited to participate in. The holiday of Purim celebrates that time some people tried to kill the Jews and failed. Wait, that might be too generic of a description. In a National-Treasure-Esque proclamation, King Ahasuerus said "Well, someones gotta be mass-murdered" and since he had a new appreciation for the Jews but had already put the hit out on them, he declared a kind of "opposite day" where the Jews could slaughter their assailants for a change, you could dress the opposite of how you normally dress, and it would be considered a good deed to get so drunk that you can't tell your friend from your enemy. Ok, maybe I'm simplifying a bit too much and entirely missing the point of the book of Esther, but you can't blame me for expecting a party like a combination of Halloween and St. Patrick's Day, even if all my friends tried to convince me it would be otherwise.

Jewish pilgrims at the Western Wall
Jewish pilgrims at the Western Wall

I spent four days celebrating Purim, and I don't remember seeing a single drunk person. Maybe a few people that were tipsy, but no one that was totally trashed. I went to parties in Tel Aviv, Haifa and Jerusalem. One night I scaled the old city walls with some Israeli friends and snuck into a large Purim party at David's Tower. The scene inside was somewhat surreal—like the mescaline trip from Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas—but at the same time it was all too real. "Am I in some sort of Bizarro World?" I wondered. "What kind of young adults don't like to get drunk?" I was mostly surrounded by secular Jews, but even if they were religious it would have been a mitzvah to drink on Purim. I started to suspect there was something else at play. "Maybe no one is drinking because it's too expensive to get drunk."

Right before leaving Haifa to come back to Jerusalem, I got a call from one of Yoel's friends asking me if I wanted to meet him in a rich suburb of Tel Aviv where one of his other friends, Omer, lived. Yoel had told me about Omer and suggested that we'd hit it off really well. Omer self-proclaimed that he lives like a redneck among millionaires, and in many ways he did. He restored a tiny house that his family used to own, and now two large metal shipping containers sit on his front lawn and function as his workshop. I viewed Omer as a modern day Tesla, and he even had a half-finished solid state Tesla Coil on his workbench. Omer was one of those guys that's good with anything that receives or transmits, and can fix just about anything that moves. Omer also liked the outdoors and trekking, so when I told him that I was headed up north to take in the nature, he said he'd come with me.

Omers workshop
Omer's workshop

We hopped in Omer's well-maintained Land Cruiser and started driving north. We stopped in some charming cities along the Mediterranean, trekked in some craggly canyons, drove through some beautiful countryside, and spent the nights sleeping under the stars. The Land Cruiser could make it just about anywhere, and Omer loved taking it off road. While coming into camp along the border with Lebanon and Syria, a flash bomb lit up the horizon. The sound of explosions serenaded us to sleep that night. When rolling up to camp on a different night, we found the place crowded with a large group of people. Omer instantly recognized them as settlers. "These are the exact kind of people you've been looking for!" Omer told me. I had previously mentioned that I wanted to spend a shabbat in one of the settlements. "These are the perfect kind of settlers for you to stay with. Lets go talk to them. I bet if you tell them that you'd like to spend a shabbat with them, they'll invite you." We went up and talked to them and they invited me for shabbat.

On Friday morning Omer drove me through the settlements in the West Bank and eventually dropped me at the house of a family who said they'd host me. The family consisted of a mother, father, and three boys. As well as me, a friend of the family, a very religious Dutch Jew, was also visiting for shabbat. "Alright, if anyone's gonna be vocal about 'the issues' and won't hold back their opinions, it's these people." Wrong again. The father of the family was a math professor at the local university, but his hobby was keeping goats and sheep. While herding the flock one day the father told me the real issue: no matter where you are in Israel or what you do, the cost of living is simply too high. He was echoing what my rich, poor, left-wing, right-wing, young, old, male, female, student, and soldier friends had told me. The fact of the matter is, the occupation sucks and there's not much that anyone can do about it, so people are finally starting to talk about the things that really effect them on a daily basis and things that perhaps they can do something about. Maybe that's why the Cost of Living protests in 2011 were the biggest demonstrations in Israeli history.

View from the house in the settlement I stayed in
View from the house in the settlement I stayed in

The West Bank? It's probably not what you think. It's neither as violent, as desolate, or as restricted as I had envisioned. The settlements? They're far more like modern suburbs than I was expecting. North Israel in the spring reminds me of the Driftless Region of Wisconsin in the summer, and the southern part of Israel is very much the desert I imagined. The university students in Israel seem to be pushed harder than the university students in any other country I've been to. Community is rife in Israel. The kibbutzim and the settlements form natural communities; youth groups, hiking clubs, and military service bring young people together... except the ultra-orthodox, and that's one of the real issues in Israel today, as is the problem of high living costs and low wages. Israel is a unique but very misunderstood country. If you want my opinion... Abu Shukri makes the best hummus in Jerusalem (except for anyone's mom of course, she surely make better hummus).

Soundtrack: Desmond Dekker and The Aces (Israelites)
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Home Away From Home

A tree in the desert
A tree in the desert

My journey in Israel started in true Jewish fashion: by wandering through the desert. After crossing the border from Jordan I spotted a gas station on a highway off in the distance and figured that rather than following the windy road, I'd just cut through the desert. In the gas station I inquired about an ATM. The attendant said with a bit of a sneer "Let me guess, you're going to Jordan?" I told him I was just coming from there actually. He perked up. "Oh, well I hope you enjoy Israel more than Jordan!" I used the ATM and bought a local SIM card. "You know in a hundred years all of Jordan will be part of Israel. We're moving the borders a couple meters each year!" The attendant told me. "Good luck with that." I said half sarcastically as I stepped out the door.

I walked out to the highway to wait for a ride up north. I wasn't sure what hitchhiking in Israel would be like. The sun was unobstructed and I tried to put on sunscreen but there was never a gap in the traffic quite long enough to do so, and I didn't feel like ignoring potential rides. After a few minutes, a balding middle-aged man with only two top teeth pulled over. He didn't speak any English but we were roughly able to communicate about our intended destinations. He motioned for me to get in. I put my pack in the back seat and hopped up front. Before I had even finished applying my sun screen, the man stopped to pick up another hitchhiker. An Israeli teenager. "Oh good, he'll speak English" I thought. Nope. The kid may have spoken less English than the man. The man offered me cigarettes, but none to the other hitchhiker so I'm guessing he was quite young—besides, he wasn't in the military yet. No one in the car really acknowledged my presence, except when the man who would wink at me just before gunning it around four or five cars, only to pull back into our lane just before colliding with oncoming traffic.

The gang in the cave
The gang in the cave

What would have taken me six or seven rides to do in Jordan, took me one ride to accomplish just across the border. The man dropped me at the Be'er Sheva bus station where I sat and waited with seemingly the entire Israeli military. I felt out of place not having a uniform or a gun. I was on my way to visit Avishai and Anat, an Israeli couple that I traveled Mongolia for almost three weeks in a tiny van with. They lived in a little student village inside of a small desert settlement. Their house was a home and their neighborhood a community. Everyone knew everyone and no one locked their doors. Seeing Avishai and Anat again was great, and living in their home was comforting.

The next day Avishai and I journeyed into the desert to meet up with some more old friends. One was another Israeli named Yoel that had traveled with us in Mongolia, and another was a German girl named Clelia who I met three times in China, and just happened to be in Israeli at the same time as me. The four of us, along with four of Avishai and Yoel's other friends, did an overnight trek through the desert. We spent the night in an old cistern that was dug by the Bedouins when they started settling down. After cooking dinner in "the cave", we set our headlamps to strobe, put on some music, and had a little dance party. It wasn't long before the chaotic cave disco evolved into a strobe-lit, semi-coordinated dancing of the hora. A good time was had by all.

Peace van at Kibbutz Samar
Peace van at Kibbutz Samar

After spending a day at Avishai and Anat's home, Clelia and I ventured south to check out a kibbutz by the name of Neot Semadar that we'd heard good things about. It took us much longer to get there than we'd expected, so we didn't arrive until the late afternoon. "It doesn't work like that." The volunteer coordinator told us. "You can't just show up. You need to apply months in advance and go through the process. We don't have any space for you here. We can't even give you a blanket for the night." Oh. I inquired when the next bus to come by would be. "There'll be another bus in an hour. If you want you can walk around until then." She told us uneagerly. We left our bags at the office and took a stroll around.

There wasn't much to see at Neot Semadar, but at the back of the kibbutz we came to a line of date palms. Date season in south Israel is usually the height of summer, but the ground was covered with only slightly old dates. I hadn't eaten anything all day so I started gathering some up. The first couple handfuls I ate were amazing! As I went down the line they got worse and worse, but they continued to fill my stomach. We went back and waited for the bus and discussed our options: Head south to Elat and find a cheap hotel, go back to Avishai and Anats, or risk it at a kibbutz between where we were and Elat. We decided to risk it.

Kibbutz Samar
Kibbutz Samar

We arrived at Kibbutz Samar around dusk where we were greeted with a similar reception to Neot Semadar. "You can't just show up here." A random woman told us. "But I'll call the volunteer coordinator for you." She called him, but he was in a meeting. "He can't see you now, but I'll give you his number and you can call later." We thanked the woman then went out to the road to try to hitchhike to Elat. After a short while a car came out of the kibbutz and started heading in our direction. We flagged it down. The older gentleman who was driving said he was on his way to Elat, and offered to give us a ride. "I started this kibbutz almost thirty years ago. I was inspired by the beat movement in America." The old man told us. Boy had we lucked out! Here we had an opportunity to show the founder of the kibbutz that we were cool, and hopefully he'd invite us to stay. When he dropped us in Elat he told us that if we ever need anything we should give him a call.

We slept that night amidst moonlight palms on the shore of the Red Sea. In the morning we called the volunteer coordinator and dropped the name of the man who had driven us to Elat. The coordinator said that if someone in the kibbutz invited us, we could come and stay. He gave us the number of a kid our age named Ziv, and told us to give him a call. We gave Ziv a call and he said he would be delighted to have us, but that we may only be able to stay for one night. So, we hitched our way back to Samar. The kibbutz sits at a seemingly arbitrary point in the desert, just off the highway and below a shallow range of mountains. The small compound is encircled by concertina wire and surrounded by a high barbed wire fence. All the kibbutzim are. Everything changes once you're inside however; there's no keys, no money, and no rules. It's said that Samar is the only true remaining kibbutz—all the others have become semi-privatized.

Impromptu jam session
Impromptu jam session

On our first day at Samar, Clelia and I were put to work landscaping. I had missed working with plants so I was eager for the job. Lunchtime was a large buffet of fresh salads and vegetables, and of course tahini. Tahini was served at every meal, and the food was always healthy and delicious. In the evening I joined the pickup ultimate frisbee game. Samar is kinnda like a summer camp, and there's always something happening. That evening we got the good news that we were invited to stay for another night. The second day was similar to the first, but in the evening there was an impromptu jam session at the Ziv's house. The next morning just as we were packing up, Ziv got a phone call concerning us. The father of one of the kids that was showing us around had invited us to come stay with them for a couple nights. We finished packing our things, then moved over to his house.

Throughout our time at Samar, people would often ask how long we were staying. We'd say "Just a day or two" and they'd laugh and say that they had come for just a month and wound up staying twenty years. While living with our new host I got to learn a bit more about the kibbutz. He told me that unlike the other kibbutzim, Samar had no strict rules and that they never strove for equality. It seemed as though the other kibbutzim were trying to force community, while Samar simply laid a foundation for it to naturally form, and there was no dearth of community at Samar. On Friday night before dinner, Clelia and I were invited into the home of another longtime kibbutz member to celebrate Kabbalat Shabbat. It was a family home with a mother and a father and four kids. There were pictures on the walls and fridge, kitchenware that belonged to a set, and some abstract feeling in the air that made a house seem like a home. The celebration was mostly just singing songs in Hebrew, but for that one hour I felt like I was part of the family. I had that included feeling like I was part of something bigger, like what I guess you're supposed to feel on Christmas morning.

Samar
Samar

The next night at dinner the founder of the kibbutz came up to us in the dining hall and asked how long we were staying. We told him that since we didn't have a host after the weekend, we'd have to leave. The next day we were given our own apartment. The landscaping work that we had been doing was finished, so I went to the kibbutz's hi-tech company to see if I could be of any help. At the back of the junkyard in Samar is a ragged looking building which hosts a semi-autonomous company called CrystalVision. Like many kibbutzim in the area, Samar makes most of their money by selling dates. They've got a large date plantation on the other side of the highway, but they faced a problem: harvesting dates is extremely labor intensive and they didn't want to exploit cheap workers but they needed to make a profit. So, they asked CrystalVision for a solution. Rather than picking and sorting each date by hand, Samar now shakes the trees and catches the dates in large nets, then feeds the dates through a machine which analyzes each date and sorts it according to quality. The system is so advanced that as the attributes of "good" dates change, so does the sorting algorithm. The date sorter is just one of the inventions to come out of CrystalVision. I spent most of my time there soldering components for an Irrigation On Demand system to be installed in China, which is supposed to save 30% in water use.

When all was said and done, I wound up spending over a week at Samar when I had only come for a day. I can see how people get sucked into a place like that. Stress couldn't be any lower and community couldn't be much higher. The food is delicious, the activities are fun, and the people are very nice. Oh, and the dates; they're to die for (but not like in The Lion King). So why did I leave? For a couple reasons. Long before coming to Samar, and even before arriving in Israel, I had made plans to go trekking with some other Israeli's I'd met along my journey. Also, the time was right for me to keep movin' on. At a different point in my life I'd love to live there forever, but I was starting to feel lonely. It's funny how in the most communal and welcoming place I've been on this trip, I felt the most lonely. Perhaps that's because I knew I'd be moving on and hence felt like I was amidst the community without actually being part of it, and I could see what I'd been missing. That is, except for the one night at Kabbalat Shabbat. For that one hour, I've never felt more at home. It was also time for Clelia and I to part ways. At another time in life I'd like to spend more time with her, and perhaps I will, but for now we're moving in opposite directions. Living in a kibbutz was a unique and educational experience, and something I don't think I'll forget anytime soon.

Soundtrack: Invisible Touch (Genesis)
2 comments

Welcome to Jordan: A Series of Short Rides

Nice old man and Syrian refugee
Nice old man and Syrian refugee

On my flight into Jordan I read some information about the country, and among the facts was the statement that their national slogan is "Welcome to Jordan." I was like "Pfff, what a lame slogan, I bet no one ever says that." I was quite surprised to find that people do indeed say "Welcome to Jordan", even after you've been in the country for a while and even after they've known you for some time. In general the people were extremely welcoming and friendly. I spent a week in the capitol city of Amman, where I spent most of my time with a couple amazing couchsurfers who took excellent care of me and made sure that I tried all of the countries best foods. I also got a chance to play in a bi-weekly badminton match put on by some of the Jordanian National Badminton players. I had an excellent time in Amman, but like always I had to keep movin' on. One of the couchsurfers was nice enough to leave me on the side of the highway outside town, from which point I was able to hitchhike my way to Wadi Musa, just above the Petra ruins.

Despite having only two main north-south roads, hitchhiking in Jordan was a bit more difficult than in most of the Asian countries. Though there were plenty of cars with empty space, people were either too busy to stop, or wanted some money. Had it not been for my friends in Amman translating for me via the phone a lot, it would have been very difficult to get by on English or my extremely poor Arabic. That said, the people that did pick me up were extremely nice. So nice in fact, that if they were only going 5km down the road it was impossible for me to refuse the ride, and I ended up making a bunch of short journeys, each of which was it's own small story.

The Monastery at Petra
The Monastery at Petra

The second car that picked me up was a classic Mercedes-Benz with two guys in it. They were on their way to work at a nearby resort complex. As we were coming into a police check post, one of the men told me that it was to search for drugs. "You don't have any drugs on you, do you?" The other man asked. "Nope" I told them. When they dropped me off, the first man said "Don't do any drugs while you're in Jordan" and the next man instantly followed that with "Do all the drugs." I gave them a smile and an unsure nod and waived good bye. Not long after they left me, a junker pulled up and let me in. A young man sat packed among rubbish in the back seat, riding shotgun was another young man, and driving the car was an old man with a woolen fisherman's cap.

The old man spoke English surprisingly well, while the two young men didn't speak any. He told me he had nine children, used to be in the military where he trained with US soldiers, and that he used to be a boxer. Though the two young men in the car were well within the range of his children's ages (5-32), neither of them were his sons. They were Syrian refugees that I guess he was just hanging out with. They were on their way to the Dead Sea for a picnic. "Stay for a cup of coffee, then you're free to go" the man told me as he pulled his car over near the sea. As I was about to learn, many people in the middle east drive with cooking supplies in the trunk so they can make coffee whenever they want it.

Ruins of Petra
Ruins of Petra

He took out a metal trough and put in some coals, while the Syrian refugees collected sticks for a fire. He swept his hand across the landscape then asked: "Beau, do you ever wonder who made all this?" I could see where this was going, but there was something about his un-preachy manner, and perhaps the fact that he remembered my name after I told it to him in the car originally, that made me want to keep listening. "There are two paths that we can go down in life. One good, one bad. You must decide." It was good advice. "Take care of your parents. When you're older, your children will take care of you." The old man was full of wisdom and advice.

Five rides later I rolled into Wadi Musa. While looking for a hostel I got a call from the nice old man, checking to see if I made it ok. The next day I snuck into Petra. Compared to every other attraction I've been to on this trip, Petra was wildly expensive ($70 to enter, $70 for a guide). I first tried sneaking around the left, but they caught me. Then I tried sneaking around the right, and they caught me. Then I went right up the middle and no one seemed to notice. Because I had waited until the afternoon to enter Petra, security was looser and the morning rush of people was starting to disperse, which means I had sunset all to myself. To prevent anyone questioning me, I put in my headphones so I wouldn't be approachable. I turned on The Mystery of The Bulgarian Voice, a recommendation of my friend Joshua, and started walking through the narrow canyon entrance. It was the perfect soundtrack.

Sunset over Wadi Musa, from outside the cave
Sunset over Wadi Musa, from outside the cave

While wandering around in Petra I got a call from the nice old man, just checking to make sure that I was still doing well. The next day I went to go CouchSurfing in a cave out in the desert. The man that was hosting me asked if I know how to add things to Google Earth, and I told him I could probably figure it out. He said his friend was trying to add his business, so I told him that I would help. His friend picked me up and drove me to his house in the desert where he had a computer and a decent connection to the internet. He was a Bedouin and he wanted to make a map of his desert camp so he could send it to someone else. Now that was something I knew how to do. I needed the man to find his camp on Google Maps, so I turned the computer back over to him. It was great to see him navigate the satellite view of the desert. If I was finding my house on Google Maps I'd move in a straight line to where I lived, but I could see the man moving across the desert and navigating by landmarks like rock outcroppings and sand dunes. It was great to watch.

The moon was so bright during the night that I stayed in the cave that I could easily walk around at night with no light. I tried sleeping under the stars but when the wind started blowing it got too cold and I moved back into the cave. The next morning I got a call from the nice old man, checking in once again. That day I hitchhiked south with a German girl that I had met in Wadi Musa. Again it was a series of short rides down the border.

Hitchhiking in Jordan was a great experience, if a bit tricky. People that were willing to give me rides were all quite friendly and usually offered me tea or coffee. The old man wasn't the only person to call and check up on me either. My friends from Amman would call daily, as did many of the other people that gave me rides. The ruins at Petra were cool, but they weren't as interesting as the people and food of Jordan. Hitchhiking has become a valuable way for me to learn about a county, and I hope I don't have to stop doing it.

Soundtrack: The Mysterious Bulgarian Voice
3 comments

The Magical Land of Juice

Some posts weren't meant to have pictures.

I wasn't expecting to get drunk on my flight to the Middle East. I didn't answer the first time that the snappily-dressed flight attendant asked me what I wanted to drink. I just stared at the full bar in front of me, like a kid in the door of a candy shop being told he can have anything he wants. "What are the options?" I asked. The man started listing off the drinks: "Beer, wine" I stopped him. Yes, I can see that. What I wanted him to say was "Beer is $10. Wine is $15" etc. "I'll have a 7up." Like that kid in the candy store, I didn't want to believe it. As if I said "I'll just take a lolly-pop" and the person encouraged me: "You can have anything." Everyone around me was having Red Label neat and it wasn't even noon! Two teams of flight attendants continuously worked the isle to make sure everyone constantly had a drink.

As our plane came in for the connection I could see designer coastline and manicured sand dunes. I love flying into Dubai. All the shape and order leaves me awestruck. Perhaps that's because I was flying there from Delhi, and last time I was coming from Tajikistan. The men sitting behind the desks at immigration were all wearing blindingly-white kanduras(Islamic robes) and white keffiyehs(headdresses) held down by black aghals(cord). The equipment was all post-modern and chrome-plated, with adjustable retina scanners and cameras from every angle. It looked like something out of A Brave New World. My passport crashed the system. While I nervously waited for it to come back up, I watched people pass by at the counter next to me. One man stared into the camera as if he was expecting a "And we're live in Five... Four... Three". I tried not to laugh. Eventually the system came back on line and they passed me through.

Did I say that I love flying into Dubai? Well I don't. I like flying over Dubai. The only reason I was flying through Dubai again is that on my last trip through, FlyDubai lost my bag and it took a week of non-stop effort to get it back, and then after months of hassle they gave me a voucher. After exiting customs I started looking for the FlyDubai counter so I could check in for my next flight. I couldn't find it. I spotted an information counter and went up to ask.

Me: Excuse me; where is FlyDubai?
Info lady: Terminal 2
Me: How can I—
Info lady: Taxi.
Me: There's no—
Info lady: No shuttle. You have to take a taxi.

Ugh, only in Dubai would you have to take a taxi from one terminal to another. Actually, I may have had to do that in the Philippines once. Anyway, what was I supposed to do? Change money? Use an ATM? Just so I could make my connection? No, not me. I had four hours—how far could it be? It turns out it was 7km away. The weather outside was a weird hot-cold. When the wind blew it felt chilly, but I realized I was sweating from carrying my pack in the sun. After a while I decided I'd try to thumb a ride. Cars had been whizzing past and I figured there'd be no way anyone could stop at that speed. The very first vehicle pulled over. I ran up and got in. The man was on the phone but he broke from his conversation to say that he wasn't going to Terminal 2, but he could get me close. After he finished his conversation he started asking me the usual questions. Eventually it came to my nationality. "American" His knuckled became more defined on his hands wrapped around the steering wheel. A kind of sneer came over his face and he said with a clenched jaw: "Oh, I'm your enemy. I'm from Pakistan." I see. I started trying to explain that I'm not enemies with anyone and that I hate war. "Yes, friends helping" He said. He was trying to imply that it's good that we could sit together in a car as friends. He had a look about him which made me suspect that he wanted to dislike me but his hospitable nature wouldn't let him find a way. He dropped me off and explained how to walk the rest of the way to the airport, and with a smile he said good bye.

The FlyDubai terminal continued to bewilder me. I drank water from a fountain and then went to use the bathroom. Two adjacent corridors showed silhouettes of people in long robes. One was red and the other was white. Hmmm, I wonder which one is the mens? I went into the one with white robes. Ok, look for urinals, look for urinals, oh god, I'm in the womens room. No, there's some hidden urinals. Fwhew. I passed through immigration again, which included a talking hologram explaining things I could and couldn't bring in. The flight had a runway boarding, and as I stood in the back of the queue I looked up at the moon. All of a sudden I had one of those magic moments. Everything else ceased to exist except for me and the moon and the top of the night sky. There was no noise, there were no lights; just one of those surreal feelings. I had written in my journal about how I don't get those feelings anymore but I sometimes find myself in situations where I recognize that I should. I thought it auspicious for the next chapter in my journey.

The man sitting next to me on my flight from Dubai to Jordan quickly started up a conversation. Eventually it came to my nationality again. "Oh. I'm you enemy." Pakistan again? "I'm from Iraq." Oh. The man was very nice. He told me that he was a civil engineer and that his father owned the largest construction company in Iraq, but due to the war they are based out of Amman. After we had been talking for a while he asked me where I was planning to stay. I told him that I had planned to stay with a friend (a girl I had been in contact with from CouchSurfing) but that I hadn't heard from her in days and I didn't have any of her contact information so I was just planning to figure something out when I got there. He offered me to come stay with him. I was getting in late and I knew the airport was 30km from town and that it would be very hard and expensive for me to find a place that night. I told him I'd take him up on the offer.

My Iraqi friend waited for me through immigration and baggage claim. As we were walking out of customs a man came near to me and said: "Boo?" I took a second, then turned. "Boo, from CouchSurfing?" I was facing a guy who looked like a normal African-American youth. "Umm, yes" I replied. I hadn't told anyone but my father about my flight details. I had only told the girl from CouchSurfing a rough time I expected to get in, and she never even confirmed that she could host me. But there she was, and standing with the guy who first approached me. "Oh, my friends are here." I told the guy from Iraq. "I told her I didn't think you'd come" the guy who had called to me said. "I've been asking every white guy if they were Boo." He continued. "Well I'm glad you came. I can't believe you're here." We walked through the parking lot and got into their car. He started driving to the city.

Guy: My name is Osama Hussein. You can just call me Ozzy. You know Rawiya.
Me: Ok. It's nice to meet you. Thanks again for coming to pick me up.
Ozzy: No worries. Do you smoke?
Me: Um, not cigarettes.
[Arabic between Ozzy and Rawiya]
Ozzy: So you smoke other things then?
Me: Yeah, that was the implication.
Ozzy to Rawiya: See, I told you. I like this guy.
Me: You speak with an American accent. You sound like... [I started searching for the word. The place actually. He had a distinctly American accent, but it wasn't a neutral accent so it sounded like he was from somewhere in particular, but I couldn't place it.]
Ozzy: You can say it: I sound like a nigger.
Me: Um, no. That's not what I was trying to say.
Ozzy: Yeah. It was.
Me: I was just trying to say. Well. Where did you learn English?
Ozzy: Hip-hop.
Me: Really?
Ozzy: Yeah. I'm Rawiya's ex-husband by the way.
Me: Ok.
Ozzy: That doesn't upset you?
Me: No. Why should it?
Ozzy to Rawiya: See, I told you he was cool.

His English was astounding. I still amazes me that he learned from hip-hop, but after our time together I've come to believe it. We got into Amman and the first thing we did was stop for dinner at a place that was open 24hrs. They said it was one of the best places in Jordan for what we were getting. It was amazing. We had a hummus-like dish called fattet, and a giant pile of falafel and vegetables. When it came time to leave, I tried to pay. "No. In our culture you are the guest and we must pay for you." I've heard that time and time again on this trip. I learned that if I tell people that my culture is American and that I feel obliged to pay, they sometimes let me. "I know." He said. "You know what we call it when we all go out and split the bill? Going American." Huh. "We call it 'Going Dutch'." I said. "Do you wanna get high? Or do you want to sleep or something else?" Ozzy asked. "Nah man, I'm cool. Whatever."

We started cruising around the streets of Amman listening to American pop music on the radio. Royals came on. "Have you heard this before?" Ozzy asked. Had it not been for my older brother's visit I certainly wouldn't have. "If it doesn't involve a seven foot clown, I don't think I want to hear it." I replied. I'd been shielded from American pop music during my stay in South Asia. If "Blurred Lines" and "When I Was Your Man" is what they're playing these days, I'd rather have "Saree Ke Fall Sa" and "Nagada Sang Dhol". Where are the pop songs with lyrics I can relate to, like Starships and Titanium? The cars interior got smoky. Everything in Amman was so modern and clean and open 24hrs. Cars obeyed traffic rules and nobody honked at anybody!

Ozzy: You wanna smoke some kush?
Me: Hmmm, I'm not really sure what that is.
Ozzy: Really? Really? It's from America. You can buy it anywhere there.
Me: Hmmm, well I've never heard of it. At least not by that name. What is it?
Ozzy: Scooby Snax? It's like a spice. You know, for cooking.
Me: I've heard of people getting high off nutmeg.
Ozzy: Nah, it's not that. It'll get you super fucked for like 15 minutes.
Me: Ummm, maybe.
Ozzy: Alright. Cool man. I just gotta swing by my guys house.

We arrived in a part of town that Ozzy told me was the ghetto, and parked our car by an intersection. Ozzy and Rawiya started speaking in Arabic, then Ozzy made a phone call, also in Arabic. "This your homies crib?" I asked in what I'm sure is way-not-cool, dated slang. "Homies? Man I ain't got no homies. As 2PAC said 'I need a homie that know me when all these muthafuckin' cops be on me.' And when those muthafuckin' cops be on me, ain't nobody know me." I came to learn that Ozzy had done a couple stints in jail/prison. "I guess this guy is my closest thing to a homie. I was just telling Rawiya that we're here because I can smell myself and I feel bad." A man approached the window, Ozzy cracked it and handed something out and the man quickly handed something in. Much to my surprise, one minute later Ozzy was spraying himself with body spray. Huh, I couldda sworn that was a drug deal.

We continued to cruise around smoking and listening to music. "You want anything man?" Ozzy asked. I was getting quite parched. "I could use something to drink. Not alcohol. Maybe just water or juice." We pulled up to a market. "What kind of juice?" Ozzy asked. "Anything. I guess orange. Or wait, do they have mango?" I rushed. "Yeah man, anything you want." Ozzy ran inside. "This Kush stuff; do I wanna smoke it?" I asked Rawiya. "Smoke it, but just a little. If he tells you to take three hits, take one. The last time I smoked it I felt my soul rise out of my body. It wasn't bad, just intense." Ozzy came back with a bottle of mango juice for me, a can of some other juice for him, and some chocolate for Rawiya. "This is the kinda juice right here" Ozzy said, pointing to his can. "Oh, well you shouldda told me." I replied. A little while later we came to larger market which I subsequently learned to be a Safeway. "I shouldn't go in there like this. I'll wind up buying a whole cart full of juice." I joked. There were isles upon isles of juice. There were juice sections within the juice sections, and Ozzy new his way around the juice. At least, that's how it all seemed at the time. We got the last two cans of the juice that Ozzy liked so much, and a package of cookies and then went back to the car.

"You wanna shake it. There's chunks in it." Ozzy told me. I shook the can and took a sip. It was delicious. "You gotta tilt the can up to get the chunks out." He told me. He was right. I tilted the can and a bunch of chunks fell into my throat and I gagged. "You'll get the hang of it." Ozzy laughed. "I see that I have much to learn from you in the ways of juice." I responded. We continued driving around. Sometime after 1am, Rawiya and I dropped Ozzy off and headed to her place. Ten minutes later we arrived at a derelict building that looked like it was abandon before it was finished. She parked her car and we went inside. Rawiya opened the door to her apartment, then quickly shut it and jumped back. She rushed downstairs and I followed her. "What's up?" I asked. "There's people in my apartment!" She told me. "What? What kind of people? How many?" I inquired. "I don't know. I just saw their shoes and the TV was on." She tried calling the landlord but his phone was off. We went back to the car and she explained: "I just got this apartment three days ago, but I haven't stayed here yet because every time I came by I only heard the loud voices of men and I'm a single woman." Ah, I see.

We drove back to Ozzy's house and picked him up. We drove around a little bit then parked in a nearby brown-field. Ozzy walked home and Rawiya and I slept in the car. When I woke up in the morning the windows were frosted/fogged over. It had been about 4°C|39°F overnight. We went back to Safeway to use the bathroom, then picked Ozzy up. "Did you wake 'n' bake?" Ozzy asked. "No, not yet." I told him. "Well lets get on it." he said as he started rolling a joint. We picked up the day where we had left it the previous evening. "You wanna meet the Jordanian mafia?" Ozzy asked. "It's the place where they grow all the weed. It's near the dead sea." He continued. "Ummm, sure" I said slowly. Is this gonna be one of those nights where I get messed up and sneak into Palestine? "You're gonna start feeling your ears popping." Ozzy told me as we drove on. "We're going to the lowest point on earth."

As we neared our destination, Ozzy made a phone call. We arrived at a drive way with a couple guys standing at the entrance. Someone came up the driveway and spoke to the men and we continued toward the building. We all got out and followed our escort around the side of the building where we took off our shoes and went inside. We entered a gloomy square room of graffiti-covered concrete walls that were built with just slightly too little mortar. Four men sat on dirty scraps of carpet around the edge of the room, with broken-china ashtrays scattered about. They all got up to greet us, and Ozzy kissed them on the cheeks in turn. They motioned for us to sit down, so we did. The room had no windows and a dangling incandescent for light. A large space heater sat toward the center of the room, with all but one coil missing. Ozzy and Rawiya began speaking to the men in Arabic, and occasionally different people would look at me. "He says he wants to talk to you, but he can't." Ozzy told me, referring to a guy with long hair pulled back into a knot.

Several joints were rolled and passed around. "This is his weed room." Ozzy told me. Puhleez, I think I know a Middle-Eastern drug den when I'm sitting in it. Occasionally Ozzy would translate something one of the men had said for me. "They like Israel here. Look." He pointed at the wall. I somehow hadn't noticed the large Israeli flag spray-painted on the wall opposite me. Hmmm, the star only has five points. I guess they don't like Israel that much. "So Ozzy; you're a website administrator?" I asked. "Yeah" he replied. "What do you actually do?" I continued. "Well, what's your background?" He asked. "Website development" I told him. "Oh. I'm your enemy. I'm a designer." Man, I sure have a lot of enemies.

I was starting to need to pee pretty badly. "Ozzy, do you know if there's a place to take a piss?" He spoke to the men in Arabic: "This guy will show you. Just follow him and go freely." Of course I'll go freely. Why wouldn't I go freely? Uh oh. In the words of my friend Joshua: Shit's about to get weird. Isn't it? I'm gonna be led into the center of a crowded fairground, or to the base of a giant palace or something, aren't I? The man brought me to the edge of the driveway and the road, and motioned for me to hop over a low wall. As soon as I was over I got rushed by puppies. Cute little puppies were dancing and barking around me. I could see their mother sleeping a few meters away. I guess they didn't want me going near her. I pointed in a direction and the man nodded his head. I walked a bit, then he shook his head. We played "hotter and colder" until I finally found the spot he wanted. I did my thing then went back to the weed room. Sitting in front of everyone, and in front of the empty space I had left, were muthafuckin' juice boxes! God I love this place.

We sat and smoked some more, and then a man came in holding three stalks of marijuana and set in down in front of the men who's den it evidently was. Oh god, I hope I don't have to smoke my way out of this situation. We smoked another joint or two, and then got up to leave. As soon as we got into the car, Ozzy began: "You know the guy with the long hair? Did you see his piece? He's the head guy." Oh, that's nice. Perhaps you should have told me that before we went into his house. The man with the long hair certainly didn't strike me as a mafia boss, not that I actually know what that should look like. The way he kept his elbows close to his torso made him seem insecure. At the same time, he kept his back straight and his shoulders up, and that made him seem in charge. I guess he just didn't need to grab space with his body to assert dominance.

"Do you wanna go to the dead sea?" Rawiya asked. "Sure." I said. We drove a bit and then pulled off on the side of the road and Ozzy and Rawiya did a Chinese fire drill. Ozzy explained that there's a checkpoint up ahead and since he's got a record it's better if Rawiya drives. "If the cops try to pull you over, it's better to just run ...if you got somethin' on you. That's what I always do." The checkpoint was uneventful and we got to the dead sea. Despite it being overcast and cold, it was beautiful. "Do you want to go swimming?" Rawiya inquired. "Isn't it a bit cold?" I replied. "You can go to a hot spring afterward." She told me. I decided I should do it. I got my swimming suit out of my bag which was still in the trunk, and then the three of us started descending to the sea. Rawiya had a bad back, so her and Ozzy decided to wait up at the hot spring for me while I went swimming.

I changed into my suit and ran down to the shore. I walked out a little ways into the water and then threw my whole body in. Man, floating in the dead sea is crazy! Then I decided I should do a bit of swimming. Then I decided I should get my head wet. Then my eyes began to burn uncontrollably. I hadn't opened them underwater, but droplets from my face were getting into them and I was completely blinded. I tried to touch down; I couldn't. I couldn't see which way the shore was and began to freak out a little. I started swimming and eventually touched down. I blindly walked my way back to land and eventually regained sight. I put on my shoes and ran up to the hot springs. "Did you go swimming?" Rawiya asked. "Yes" I panted. "Aren't your eyes burning?" She asked. "Yes, very much. It's terrible." I replied. "Oops, my bad. I was supposed to warn you about that before you went in." Ozzy interjected. I walked over to the hot spring. There was a pool just beneath the highway, coming from a pipe under the road. Beneath that was a waterfall. Both the pool and the waterfall were completely surrounded with garbage. I'm talking Indian train track garbage piles. Eh, I've bathed in worse. Besides, I have to rinse off this salt. I went down to the waterfall and shampooed up my hair. This waterfall will be perfect for rinsing my hair. OH GOD, IT's HAPPENING AGAIN!!! IT BURNS! Well, shame on me. I really shouldda known better the first time.

I dried off and we got back in the car. We started driving back to Amman when Rawiya shared the good news: "A friend of mine from CouchSurfing said we can stay with him tonight." I was happy to hear it. We dropped Ozzy off then went to meet our host. Ali greeted us at the car just outside his apartment. He had a very roomy place with five large couches and an extra room. Ali was nice and responsible and the three of us went out for some traditional Middle-Eastern deserts. *Sigh* The madness is finally over. At least, that's what I thought...

The next day Rawiya and I picked up Ozzy and continued to drive around Amman and smoke. Rawiya told me that her dream was to be a trucker. Hmmm, where have I heard that before... They asked me if I was interested in drinking and I said sure. They took me to the duty free shop where as a foreigner I could buy cheap booze. I bought a large bottle of whisky and we got back in the car. "Do you wanna drink this at the mafia bosses villa?" Rawiya asked. "They're all sitting around a fire. Do you like fires?" Do I!? She called the mafia boss to let him know that we'd be on our way. Ozzy was driving in his usual inattentive and aggressive manner. When the cops tried to pull us over, he ran. Ozzy pulled the car into the nearest gas station and when the cops caught us there, he told them that we couldn't stop because we were almost out of gas... which was partially true since the tank was always near empty. It was a car that Rawiya was borrowing from work and they only ever had enough money for a few liters at a time. The cop let us off! People in Jordan don't fear the police and they never try to extort money out of you. When we arrived at the villa behind a large mosque, the fire was just getting started. On the couches on the back patio sat the man with long hair, a teenager smoking a hookah, a kid of maybe thirteen, and a young man with a gun in a holster over his breast. I sat down between the mafia boss and the other guy with a gun. Ozzy and Rawiya sat on the couch opposite.

We drank and smoked and carried on. At some point I was telling Ozzy how I really like the mafia boss and I feel very comfortable around him, and then both him and Rawiya laughed and said that he was literally just saying the same thing about me! Both before and after that incident I realized at times I was jokingly pantomiming the mafia boss as he sat beside me gesticulating some story in Arabic. I suppose he probably doesn't get many people that are willing to do that. I read an email on my phone from my father "Have a good time and obey local customs whilst in the Middle East." Then a new man arrived at the party, carrying a large machine gun with a clip nearly as long as the barrel. He shook hands with the mafia boss then stepped closer to me. He leaned in for a kiss on the cheek, so I gave him one. Hmmm, other side? The man still waited. Third times a charm? The man smiled and moved on. "Three kisses. That's what you guys do here?" I said to Ozzy. "Yeah. I'm really impressed: you did it well." I gave up on expecting Ozzy to tell me important information before I needed it.

I was happy that the guy with the large gun didn't hang around too long. After he left, a Palestinian guy with a huge bag of kush showed up. The guy with the gat strapped to his chest asked me if I had any American music. I took out my iPod and speakers, which I luckily had with me. Rawiya explained that it was actually the villa of the guy who asked me to put on the music, and that he was an interior designer. He was the first interior designer that I've met that carries heat! Everyone seemed to enjoy the music and both guys sitting on either side of me did a little dancing in their seat. Eventually however, the mafia boss said that he had had enough music and asked me to turn it off. The owner of the villa told me to leave it on. Ok, who should I listen to? How about the guy with the gun. They both have guns! The mafia boss or the homeowner? Oh god. I left the music off. The bottle of whisky ran dry. "No more? Can you get some more?" The mafia boss gestured to me. I looked at Ozzy and Rawiya and could see that they were ready to call it a night, so I shook my head no. He understood. We said our goodbyes and went back to Ali's.

The part of this story that I haven't been able to work in, is the lifestyle of Ozzy and Rawiya. In a few words, they behaved like the American poor. Rawiya had been homeless for the couple days before I came to Jordan, and that's why she hadn't answered my messages. They were both clearly living below paycheck to paycheck, and yet every purchase and every meal was a battle for the bill, and they almost always beat me. It was the first time I was hosted by a homeless CouchSurfer. And you know what? Every time Rawiya saw a beggar (which wasn't too often), she gave them money. I've never really lived out of a car, or with poor people in a modern city. It was a very humbling, touching, and enlightening experience. Ozzy and Rawiya are trapped in a culture that doesn't accept them. They'd be nothing extraordinary if they lived in America, but unfortunately they don't. As for my initials impressions of the Middle East: I love it! The food has been amazing and everyone has been soo nice. I can't wait to carry one this story and see what happens next!

Soundtrack: Ain't No Sunshine (Michael Jackson)
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Concerning Asian Metro Systems

Singapore metro restrictions
Singapore metro restrictions

Fwhaap! "Awe, my nads. Stupid Seoul Metro system." As an American, especially one coming from a city with no internal rail system, I'm really not qualified to be talking about other countries transit systems. As a world traveler who's been to almost every country in Asia, I feel entirely justified in doing so. I just got back from returning my Delhi Smart Metro cards. Trains are by far my preferred method of public transportation, but some countries have better systems than others. I've spent a lot of time riding and analyzing different metro systems around Asia, and the following are things which separate the good from the bad:

Signage:

As a traveler, signage is one of the most important things. Locals don't often need the signs because they know where they are. Good metro systems have full system maps at many places throughout the station, including the ticket machine/window, on the platform and in the cars. Good systems also have consistent maps. The maps at the station are the same as the maps in the car and the same as the paper maps at the tourist information center. Good systems also have signs using Latin characters.
The best: Hong Kong
The worst: Japan

Convenience:

Convenience really breaks down into a couple components: availability of long-term passes, frequency of trains, locations of stations and security hassles. Some cities offer rechargeable metro passes which save you the trouble of getting single journey tickets. South Korea is the best in this regard as you can get one pass which works for the metro system (including buses) in most of their major cities. Taipei deserves an honorable mention as they have a special tourist metro pass. As far as frequency goes, Beijing takes the cake; there's always another train within two minutes. In Hong Kong you're never very far from a metro station. Some cities require you to go through a security checkpoint of varying scrutiny before entering the metro system. In Beijing you'll be forced to drink some of any liquid you're carrying. In Manila you get to stand in line for one hour before a full cavity search. Never, in 5 months of traveling, had a security officer actually wanted to go through my entire pack until I got to Manila.
The best: Seoul
The worst: Manila

Cleanliness and bathrooms

It's simple: no one likes a dirty subway system and when you gotta go, you gotta go. South Korea excels in both these aspects and the metro bathroom is often the preferred and reliable public bathroom. Japan obviously keeps things clean, but to be honest, not really any cleaner than almost every other country, with the exception of Malaysia and The Philippines.
The best: South Korea
The worst: The Philippines

Sign in Chinese Subway
Sign in Chinese Subway

Not making you look like an idiot:

No one wants to look like an idiot, especially in a foreign country. You already look like enough of an idiot standing their with your giant backpack on, so it's nice when a metro system does nothing to add to that feeling. Imagine you're standing on a train. You know your stop is coming up soon but you don't know exactly when or on which side the door will open. Being anxious, you go and stand in front of the door. The train stops: it's your stop and you're facing the wrong door. You push and fight through the crowd to get to the opposite side of the train and just barely escape as hoards of people are rushing on. Wouldn't it be nice if the car had a full system map showing you where you currently are, where the last stop was and what stop you're coming into, as well as having an indicator telling you which door will be opening? Hong Kong has all that. Now imagine you're walking up to the entrance machine and you swipe your ticket: nothing happens. You swipe it again and it opens. No big harm. Imagine that instead of having the barrier closed and opening it when you swipe your ticket, the barrier starts open and closes if there's something wrong with your ticket. You swipe your ticket, receive no indication and start walking through the gate. Then a piece of plastic swings forward and hits you in the nuts. You stop short and there's a pileup behind you. Now you have to push back and re-swipe your ticket and hope things work better next time. This is the way things are in South Korea and Japan.
The best: Hong Kong
The worst: South Korea

How to stand on the metro:

Speaking of looking like an idiot, there's few better ways to look like you've never ridden a subway before than to stumble around every time there's a kink in the track. I was fortunate enough to learn to ride the metro in Singapore, a country of people seemingly bread to stand on trains. As I was holding onto the hand rail and still bouncing around, I noticed that the locals didn't appear to move at all. I saw one woman with stilettos on scratching one leg with the other, not holding onto anything, not even seem to notice a bi-directional jolt to the train which almost put me on the floor. At first I tried to anticipate the movement of the train and lean away from the direction I was about be jerked. That approach didn't work so I started studying the locals. Their heads appeared to stay in the same place. They didn't move their feet. They weren't leaning. "How are they doing this?" I wondered. Then I remembered the words of Chubs Peterson: "It's all in the hips." Over the next year I slowly developed my technique. If you succeed in following these steps you'll look like a local (apart from the giant pack on your back and probably your skin color):

  1. Stand with feet shoulder width apart, at roughly a 20 degree angle off the direction the train is moving. That means you should mostly be looking to the side of the train, but not perfectly aligned with the car. Most of the train jerks will be in the direction of motion, but it's the side-to-side bumps that are most likely to throw you. This stance should account for both.
  2. Try to keep your head and feet in the same place. Before leaving a stop, swing your hips toward the front of the train. Before coming into a stop, swing your hips toward the back of the train.
  3. Try to counteract all motion only by moving your hips. Remember, keep your feet and head where they are.

Conclusion:

There's a lot of things that go into making a good metro system and there's quite a bit of difference between the Asian countries. China was surprisingly good and far preferable to Japan in every regard. South Korea has the biggest split, with lots of things done well and lots of things done very poorly. Google Maps indexes all the metro systems and gives accurate directions wherever you are, but if you're in Japan or South Korea they'll only be in Japanese/Korean characters respectively. I view this as an issue with Google rather than either of those countries, but as a testament to modern technology, when Google says a bus or train will be somewhere in Asia at a certain time, you can pretty reliable count on it being there. I love trains: they're easy to navigate and far more reliable than buses. In many ways Asia is trying to catch up with the America, but this is one place where America is embarrassingly behind.

Soundtrack: I Ain't Ever Satisfied (Steve Earle and The Dukes)
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Rockin Rajasthan

Me and a bunch of young Indian men on a roof in Ahmedabad
Me and a bunch of young Indian men on a roof in Ahmedabad

Traveling is stressful whether on a short holiday or a trip around the world, and India is certainly not known for being easy. You'd think that traveling with my older brother Ace would have reduced my stress levels, and in some ways it did, but I felt a responsibility to make sure he had an enjoyable trip, even though I knew he wasn't fussy. I also had to start constructing a plan, and I hate traveling with a plan. Before we left Delhi, Ace and I had booked a train from the south of India all the way back to the north; it was to be a grueling 38hr local sleeper from Kochi to Ahmedabad which was due to get us into town at the crescendo of their enormous annual kite festival.

"You may have to spoon with some random guy on one of these sleeper trains." I told Ace. I'd had to before. The Indian rail system has a couple awesome features which make it superior to other Asian train lines, but it has a couple drawbacks which make it worse. One of the double-edged swords of the India Rail is the wait-list. There's an advanced wait-list system for Indian train tickets which ensure that no space goes wasted. Unfortunately however, anyone with a wait-list ticket is allowed to board the train—and I mean socially allowed since there are no ticket checks on your way into the station, onto the platform, or onto the train. This usually causes a surplus of people on every train (the "unassigned seats" is a different story altogether, and a whole new type of crowded).

Kites over the roofs of Ahmedabad
Kites over the roofs of Ahmedabad

There's a strong visual divide among the Indian social strata manifested by grooming and attire. People wearing traditional clothing tend to be noticeably grubby, and people with modern styles tend to look clean. The man sleeping in one of our beds when we boarded the train from Kochi to Ahmedabad was of the latter class. He was polite and offered to move, but I told him I didn't mind if he slept a while longer since it was an upper bunk and at the middle of the day I was happy to sit down below. When I got out my laptop to work he came down to talk to me. He introduced himself as Abhijeet. He said he was a software developer and that he lived in Ahmedabad. Throughout our 38hr journey Ace and I interacted with Abhijeet a lot: talking, sharing food, and in the evening, sharing my bed.

Ace and I were planning to wing it for the kite festival, so we were delighted when Abhijeet invited us to come stay and celebrate with him. Abhijeet lived with four other guys in an unfurnished apartment near the National Institute for Design where he had an office. The three-day kite festival was amazing. The blue skies were checkered with colorful kites, and the black nights were dotted with red floating lanterns. Abhijeet introduced us to groups of his friends, most of whom studied or worked at the nearby design college. All of his friends were very nice and inviting and on more than one occasion we found ourselves amidst a sea of people on rooftops flying kites, cheering, and generally being merry.

Aaron, Me, and Ace at Lodi Garden in Delhi
Aaron, Me, and Ace at Lodi Garden in Delhi

One day Ace and I went to explore the old part of the city on our own. While there, we met up with the nice couple from Australia that I played leapfrog with on my way up to Tilicho Lake three months prior. As we roamed around the city, everyone that saw us invited us to come fly kites on their roof. We took a few groups up on their offers and were always greeted with a warm welcome and food and/or chai. As I've written about before, it's not uncommon for me to run into other travelers again, sometimes months and countries later. I was about to meet some more old friends.

When the kite festival was over it was time for Ace and I to return to Delhi so he could fly back to the US and I could meet one of my best friends from home. Like Ace, Aaron had come for just a couple weeks and with the main purpose of seeing me. With Aaron I tried to limit the area of our travels, and even then I found myself stressed and wanting to rush. Our first stop was the city of Jaipur where a new-old friend was attending a large literature festival.

Aaron, Me, and Joshua on stairs in the Bundi fortress
Aaron, Me, and Joshua on stairs in the Bundi fortress

I was practicing my juggling in the parking lot of a dusty bus station in Dunhuang China when I first met Joshua. You don't remember him because I never wrote about him. Something about his appearance made me start with "Do you speak English?" I must have thought he was French. I wasn't used to seeing other travelers at that time. Not many westerners go to the Muslim part of China, and those that do don't seem to end up in Dunhuang. He spoke deliberately, in a manner which made me pause and reflect on how I talked.

Joshua was an American guy from Oklahoma, but had spent the past five to seven years living outside the US. He'd spent a couple years living in Turkey, some time in Australia and South America, quite a bit of time traveling, and a year or so living in India. He was a travel writer and a fiction writer and a travel-fiction writer. We spent a couple days traveling together in Turpan, then split and met back up in Kashgar. I only saw him briefly in Kashgar, but before he left he told me if I was ever in Dharamsala I should drop him a line.

Indigo houses in Bundi
Indigo houses in Bundi

When I was in north India I sent Joshua a message and he invited me to come stay with him and his fiancé. I got into town on Thanksgiving evening and spent a very nice and chill week in a place that didn't feel at all like India. It was a refreshing change and certainly helped lower my stress. When Aaron and I met Joshua in Jaipur he was having a rough go of things, as sometimes happens when you travel. He had lost his wallet immediately after going to an ATM, and then fallen through one of the many open grates in the sidewalk, soaking one leg in raw seweg. The end of the literature festival was kind of a bust, but we all had the best time we could.

When the festival was over, Joshua, Aaron and I went to Bundi to check out a derelict palace, a hilltop fort overlooking an indigo city, and lots of awesome stairs. Less touristy than the rest of the Indian state of Rajasthan, I found Bundi to be quite charming, if a bit in disrepair. I had done some laundry when we were in Jaipur and due to overwhelming gloom it still hadn't dried on the day we clambered around the hilltop fortress—but the weather only added to the decrepit ambiance. Traveling with Joshua was always enjoyable, but Aaron and I had to keep on keepin' on.

Aaron waiting for the sunrise over the desert
Aaron waiting for the sunrise over the desert

We relaxed a bit and took a cooking class in Udaipur while waiting for our clothes to dry. I had been wearing my thermal underwear, my swimming trunks, and a dress shirt for far too long. Our final stop in India before returning to Delhi was Jaisalmer—a desert town near the border with Pakistan. Getting there and finding a place to stay involved the same frustrating process you often go through when traveling in India. We figured we'd get away from the crowds and the hassles by doing a two-day camel trek through the desert. Though booking a tour was more stressful than I would have liked, we ended up having a pretty good experience. We slept by ourselves on some sand dunes with just a couple of blankets, and before going to bed Aaron taught me quite a few things about the stars. In the early morning we sat on the dunes watching the sun rise over Pakistan.

In a couple days Aaron will fly back home, and a few days after that I fly to Jordan. I'll be sad to see Aaron go, but I can't say I feel the same about India. Perhaps I'm getting burnt out on traveling or maybe I've just spent too much time in Asia. Either way it's time for me to make a big change. I'm looking forward to the countries ahead—Jordan, Israel, Turkey—and I'm hoping that a few days in Delhi will give me time to catch up on things and unwind before starting the next part of my adventure. There's lots of friends I've made while traveling that I'm excited to see in Israel, and I'm excited for all the friends I've yet to make in the rest of the Middle East.

Soundtrack: Royals (Puddles Pity Party)
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The Change Game

Ace in front of the Virupaksha Temple in Hampi
Ace in front of the Virupaksha Temple in Hampi

Ace here. I am Beau's older brother for those of you who I have not met. Not to brag too much, but I am crushing the change game. I seem to always have oodles and oodles of 10, 20 and 50 rupee bills (~ 60 rupees to the US dollar). No real reason to have so many small bills but Beau got me all whooped up about the change game when I arrived in India. People are always going to want you to give them correct change even though they can easily make change for you he told me. One of his many astute observations about India after spending two months here.

Like the non-existent customs officers, there was no Beau when I approached the exit doors of the Delhi airport upon my arrival. He was supposed to meet me outside of customs. After a bit of pacing back and forth I finally saw the boy pounding on the window outside the airport. For those who aren't prepared for it, the stench outside can be a little overwhelming. Luckily Beau had got me to prep myself in an email before I left by telling me to crap in a bag and then lite it on fire in my room. The smell I was prepared for, but was I ready for the change game?

Ace and Beau atop the Hanuman Temple in Hampi
Ace and Beau atop the Hanuman Temple in Hampi

Less than 24 hours after my arrival we hightailed it out of Delhi to the ancient temple-mottled, river-spliced, tourist-town of Hampi. It was evident I still wasn't ready for the change game. I mean what kind of noob puts small bills on the outside of his money stack? Maybe in the US, but this was India. I had to learn fast if I wanted to get ahead in the game. In general we were like most of the other tourists in Hampi who were there to take in the temples, idles and beautiful landscape all the while making sure not to make eye contact with the tuk-tuk drivers and monkeys because they'll get you if you look at 'em. But unlike most other tourists, I wasn't going to roll over in the change game so easily. Crossing the river from our hostel to get to most of the temples and the bad-ass, bulgy-eyed temple of Lakshmi Narasimha cost 10 rupees a piece. Twenty if you were ferrying bags across too. Here was a good place to practice.

Ferry ticket salesman: "Twenty for the two of you."
Me: "Okay, here is 100 rupees."
Salesman: "You don't have change."
Me: "Sorry, I only got this hundo."

I lied, I had the change but I knew he had more change. I just watched him bilk 60 rupees change from the three English girls we were paling around with whom Beau had met earlier in his travels. Not to mention the wad of tens right in front of him from all the other tourist he already fleeced. I was getting sharp, but one can only work the change game over in a little town like Hampi for so long. I was destined to try my cunning elsewhere.

Beau in front of the Lakshmi Narasimha Temple
Beau in front of the Lakshmi Narasimha Temple

The fruit vendors in Pollachi — the town outside the Parambikulam Tiger Reserve — were going to be my next challenge but first we had to get there. Our overnight bus had taken us an hour past Combiatore — the city we were supposed to catch our connecting bus to Pollachi in. The bus wasn't going to turn around for us so they just left us on the side of the road. The director claimed we could get a local bus back to Combiatore. The sun was soon to set and getting a bus back to Combiatore was looking bleak, let alone making it all the way to Pollachi via the circuitous backtracking. So Beau took me on a walk down an access road. A few kilometers walk down the access road we were hoping to meet up with a major thoroughfare which connected to Pollachi. To our pleasure a local bus scooped us up and the locals were loving the two of us. I gave the director exact change, no questions asked. The bus let us off in a little town and pointed us in the right direction. Darkness was starting to settle in but luckily a car stopped at the prompting of Beau's hand gesture; he had obviously done this before. After about a 20 minute drive our savior pulled in front of a bus and ushered us on board. This bus was to Pollachi!

I slipped on the change game when we got into Pollachi and pulled out some 10s and 20s when I went to pay for some grapes. The vendor was delighted. Lesson learned. Keep the large bills in one pocket and the small bills in another. The tiger reserve wasn't worth the not-change we paid to go, or the 5 hour long wait we had to get out of there, but at least it gave me time to think about all the mistakes I had made on my way to getting there. I wasn't going to let that happen to me on the way to the tea-plantation-stocked mountainous city of Munnar.

Tea fields of Munnar
Tea fields of Munnar

True to myself, I didn't. From the fruit and carrots we planned to subsist on during our travel to Munnar, to the meals we ate, the coconuts Beau drank, or the sights we paid to go see, I was reaping in the change. I thought I was going to have to make change for this nice French couple we met at a supposedly lovely viewpoint an hour away from Munnar. (I say supposedly because we couldn't see anything due to the fog/clouds.) No matter, I had more than enough at this point but it turned out so did the guy they were trying to pay. Did they have change and were they just playing the change game too? I was kind of looking forward to getting rid of my change somewhere.

Before I knew it things were out of control; I was Scroog McDuckin' in rupee change. I had to find somewhere to dump it off, but where? Luckily a worthy outlet manifested itself to me; the bus directors of whom I have mad respect for. These guys — they've all been guys in my experience — are amazing and well worthy of getting the covetous change. No matter how chaotic the bus gets — hoards of people getting on and off, scattering this way and that — these dudes know who has yet to pay, and, in case they are currently losing the change game, who they still owe change to even if 5 minutes of mayhem has ensued. F*!#ing amazing.

Soundtrack: Here's to the bus driver | Money (Pink Floyd)
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Migration of The Party Beach

Only on a beach in India
Only on a beach in India

In Muslim Indonesia, the party is on the Hindu island of Bali. In Hindu India, the party is in the Christian state of Goa. Nearly every country in Asia with a sea shore, has some sort of party beach or party island. The travelers know where all these places are, and the focus shifts continually. Like the life of a star, each party place grows more popular until it eventually explodes with a big bang and then quickly collapses to a singularity of what it once was; occupying the same amount of space and occasionally sucking in a passing drifter drawn by the light given off years ago but for which the source no longer remains. The Thai islands peaked a couple years ago, Goa passed it's prime long before that. Forming in untouched space from the pieces of earth which escaped the collapse of Goa, is a new "chill" place called Gokarna.

The locals of Gokarna can see the star forming and are trying to stop it, but once a system gathers too much mass there's no return. Gokarna was very much everything I was looking for when I went to Goa: peaceful enough to be relaxing, populated enough to have fun. Along a beach which requires a slight bit of hiking to get to no matter how you approach it, is a series of restaurants with beach huts out back. For nearly no money at all you can rent a hut and spend the days lounging in the long sand beach which is unsullied by rocks or shells or garbage, which is meticulously reset each evening by the healing tide. In the evenings you can enjoy the company of other travelers, and even perhaps a special lassie. On nearly all the party beaches in Asia—even the one off the über-strict Sultanate of Brunei—the local police turn a blind eye to what the tourists do, but not in Gokarna.

Sunset at Om Beach
Sunset at Om Beach

You won't find Alcohol on the menu of any of the restaurants in Gokarna, but it's always available upon request. Many people keep things shanti in a Kashmiri kinda way (if you know what I mean) and the proprietors pay no mind. The people who own the restaurants and guest-houses along the beach benefit greatly from the influx of western tourists, which is why they'll warn you when the police are coming by with their dogs, as they do several times a week. It seems the villagers, who don't benefit from the tourist industry, are bent on keeping the party in Goa. Me? I don't blame them, and I'm slightly saddened anytime I see a nice place which I know will be ruined in a couple years. That said, I joined in a bit of the festivities. After all, I was there during Christmas; a time when many of the tourists are increasingly jolly.

I enjoyed Christmas with a guy from Moldova and four English girls whom I had met at different points on my four-bus trip from Goa to Gokarna. I spent most of my unsolitary time in Gokarna with those people, though usually not at the same time. In the days I enjoyed tossing a disc with the guy from Moldova and working in his presence, as he's also a web developer. In the evenings I usually hung with the girls. Christmas eve was like any other: a barefoot dinner on the beach surrounded by beautiful ladies, followed by hippies dancing around flaming palm fronds.

Beach Ultimate sign
Beach Ultimate sign

The makeshift Christmas tree built from brown coconut palm leaves, was only set on fire at the end of the night since the group knew it would be quickly followed by the local police. I stayed and watched for a bit, then went for a moonlit swim where the bubbles created by my movement transformed into spherical crystals of radiance exploding with golden light. Gokarna was just what I needed: a cheap and peaceful place to relax, but also to enjoy the company of others when I desired it. It's sad to think that in several years Gokarna will probably be more like Goa is now, but I suppose that's the next step in the evolution of tropical beaches these days.

Soundtrack: Under the Boardwalk (The Drifters)
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I Fought The Law

Country road in Goa
Country road in Goa

As you come over a hill an officer jumps out in front of your motorbike. Traffic whizzes past in the fast lane and you're forced onto the shoulder. Before you've even stopped, the officer has pulled the keys out of your motorbike. This was the situation I found myself in in India's tropical getaway of Goa. I had anticipated getting pulled over and partitioned my money into three different pockets before I left. In most Asian countries the cops will just take whatever money you've got on you, and if you turn out your pocket and you've only got a little, you can get off easy. But for some reason I just didn't feel like giving them anything.

Cop: You need to pay 1,300 rupees
Me: No
Cop: What then?
Me: I stay here with you. We'll be friends.
Cop: Ok, 600. Lowest I can let you off.
Me: No.
Cop: How much then?
Me: I call the tourist police.
Cop: Smart boy

Portuguese Church of The Immaculate Conception in Goa
Portuguese Church of The Immaculate Conception, Goa

I took out my phone and called the local police office and asked for the number of the tourist police. They gave it to me and I took out some paper and pencil and looked menacingly back at the police truck, as if I was taking down their info. The officer waved me over. I shook my head and stayed on the phone. He waved me over again. Still I refused. He waved me over once more. I hung up and walked over. "OK, we're going to let you off with a warning. Talk to the Sargent, she wants to explain some things to you." He handed the keys to the Sargent and I walked around the vehicle to speak with the lounging woman. Her tone was very different than the young officer who I was dealing with. She was angry that I had tried to fight back. "We can keep your motorbike" she told me. She offered to write down all her information and give it to me and I could walk away. I changed my approach. "I'm sorry officer. I really appreciate this break you want to give me. Yes, of course I'll have a Class A license next time. Yes, I understand you're in charge. Thank you ma'am."

On the way back home the same thing happened. Just as the officer was going to pull out the keys he took one look at me and then said: "America. Go!" To quote Athos from Disney's The Three Musketeers: "Only a fool would try and arrest [me] twice in one day." I guess the locals are used to it though. On my way back from Kashmir, the driver got pulled over three times in a row, and each time I saw him exchange money for a bullshit form and then get back in the jeep, slightly angrier than before. He got the same form every time and I saw him try to show a previous one to the new cop once, but it didn't matter. He hadn't bribed that cop yet. I could see he was upset by it all, but he never tried to make a stand.

People playing cricket in the field in Mumbai
People playing cricket in the field in Mumbai

A little bit of baksheesh goes a long way in Asia. On my bus from Mumbai to Goa, the conductor tried to charge me a little somethin' extra for my bag. I was about 30 minutes into refusing his requests when four Indian doctors joined me in the back of the bus. The conductor left me alone and my new companions invited me to join them in a drink. The conductor came back to tell them that we couldn't drink on the bus. The doctor's first response? They offered him some money. He wouldn't take it. They offered more. Still he refused. Finally they offered him enough and he left us alone for the rest of the ride. That was the first time I had even come close to being tipsy in over two months. In fact, I've only drunk alcohol twice since I've been in India. The doctors had felt obliged to invite me to join them, and I had felt obliged to accept the offer. In India they have a saying "Atithi Devo Bhav" which means "Guest is God", and members of the higher class seem very quick to honor the tradition. A very nice local guy I met in an eatery in Mumbai had bought me a basket of chocolates which I was able to share with my new doctor friends.

Goa is made up of a series of beaches, each with it's own crowd and ambiance. I had gotten off the bus just before the doctors, and wasn't very happy with the beach I had chosen. I had rented a motorbike so I could look for a better place to stay and explore a bit of the surrounding area. On the way to the first beach I wanted to check out, I picked up a local guy who stuck out his thumb at the last minute. It felt good to be on the other end of the hitchhiking exchange, and I dropped the man at his door. The doctors had sent me a couple messages asking if I would come to their beach, so eventually I did. When I first arrived at their beach, a local guy tried to get a little baksheesh from me so I could park my bike in a public area. I moved my bike and carried on. The doctor's beach, like all the others, wasn't my cup of tea.

Stalls at Arambol beach
Stalls at Arambol beach

I found all the beaches in Goa a bit too busy to be relaxing but not crowded enough to have fun. Most of Goa was just a series of stalls and vendors and Russian people. I've noticed on this trip that there's certain places where Russian people flock to for their holidays, and when you get to one of those places everything and everyone is Russian. Signs are in Russian, the locals speak Russian. Being lonely in a group of Russians is like being thirsty in an ocean.

Vendor: Skol'ko eto stoit? (Russian for "How much?")
Russian: [Unintelligible Russian]
Vendor: [Unintelligible Hindi]
Russian: Give good price then.

I decided it was best for me to just move on. I'd been looking for a nice place to relax and kill some time, but Goa just wasn't doing it for me. Even though I "won" each experience where someone tried to extort money out of me, they had taken their toll and left me feeling exhausted and alone in a sea of people I couldn't talk to. When traveling you need to pick your battles and learn when to move on. In some countries you should set aside some money for bribes as a necessary cost of travel. I carry a pack of cigarrets and I don't even smoke, 'cuase they tend to make instant friends, especially with officials. It's usually best to play by all the local rules, but this time I was lucky: I fought the law and I won.

Soundtrack: Summer In The City (The Lovin Spoonful)
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The Myth of The Dark Alley

Golden Temple at dusk
Golden Temple at dusk

Somewhere around midnight the bus dropped me off alone on an unlit side-street of Amritsar. A guy with a knife didn't approach me. A group of men with clubs didn't close in. The CHUDs didn't come. I just had to find a rickshaw driver and pay him to take me across town. This whole trip people have been warning me to be careful. "Watch your bags." "Keep your wallet in your front pocket." "Don't walk alone at night." "Don't accept food from strangers." "The people in this [town|state|country] are nice, but in the next {village} over they're not." And this whole trip I've been careless with my bag, I've kept my wallet in my back pocket, I walked alone at night and I always took food from strangers. And every town was a nice as the one before it—but the people there warned me about their neighbors. And most of my life I was worried too. I was told to be home before dark and not take candy from strangers; but no on ever offered me candy and I used to sneak out at night all the time.

My luck is bound to change one of these days and I know it, but that won't undo all the great and amazing things that have happened by being fearless. If only one out of every 1,000 experiences is a bad, it was worth it and I'll keep taking chances. Crossing Amritsar at night wasn't so dangerous, even for a fairly large Indian city. Amritsar is home of the Sikhs, some of the friendliest people I've met on this trip. If your mental image of an Indian guy involves a large turban, you're probably imagining a Sikh. Sikhs are one of the few religious groups I've come across in my life that actually practice what they preach. Sikhs don't believe in cutting any of their hair, so many of them have cool beards and wrap their long hair under beautiful turbans. Sikhs wear silver bracelets to remind them of their servitude to god, and carry swords to protect themselves and others. Sikhs believe in housing and feeding anyone who comes to them.

Golden Palace guard
Golden Temple guard

The holiest site for the Sikhs is the Golden Temple in Amritsar, which they're all supposed to visit at least once in their life. The Golden Temple poses itself in a pool of water inside a much larger temple complex. My first sight of the temple complex in Amritsar was an open-air courtyard saturated with blankets and sleeping people. My next sight was the golden temple and my third sight was a dining hall packed with hundreds of people. It's estimated that the Golden Temple feeds and houses around 100,000 people every day, and all for free. For a while, I was one of them. During the days in Amritsar I mostly hung around the Golden Temple; sometimes helping out, sometimes sitting and meditating, and sometimes learning from a Sikh—the word "Sikh" means "student" by the way. At night I took to meandering down dark alleys, as I'm wont to do.

I've wandered under invisible moon and stars through most of Asia's major and minor cities. In one of Bangkok's fancier districts, I was surprised to find a shanty town coexisting between the towering modern skyscrapers. Perhaps the people that lived there have always lived there, and the giant buildings were like new mountains which you cannot interact with but only block your path. The modern city of Shanghai lies directly on top of an old Chinese city, but the two rarely commingle. Sometimes the winding alleys aren't through a city that doesn't belong there, but those unlit mazes are just as interesting. Amidst narrow, unparallel rows of closed up shops and houses in Amritsar, I came upon a sliver of industry stabbing back into the darkness. In the late night factory of one, an old man was milling about like a ghost among big machines which were once painted green, and a tower of sacks which contained their product. But everything was white. The machines, the sacks, the old man. Flour? Cement? The steady din of the machines canceled out all other sounds but made no distinguishable noise. I kept walking. Four young men on a motorbike rode by.

Old man in late-night dark-alley factory
Old man in late-night dark-alley factory

On a different night I joined a group of travelers to go to the Indian-Pakistan border to watch the nightly closing ceremony. "Watch your wallet. Keep your money in your front pocket. Don't bring any valuables." The taxi driver told us. No one there even thought about trying to pick my pocket. As often happens in India, tourists were sequestered into their own row of seats to watch the bizarre ritual. On both sides of the border, guards with giant fan-hats fiercely goose-stepped their way to the gate, taunted each other for a minute like fenced off roosters, then violently shook hands across the divide. The Indian grandstands were packed with cheering spectators while the Pakistani side had a scant showing of onlookers. I got the feeling that the whole affair was far more safe and friendly than the actor-guards made it seem.

After hopping on a random train out of Amritsar the next day, it occurred to me that it might actually be a bit dangerous for me as an American to accidentally show up at the Pakistani border and have no good explanation for what I was doing there. Fortunately the train I jumped on didn't take me to Pakistan, but instead it started taking me up north, the exact opposite direction than I was trying to go. My "plan" was to hop the first train out of Amritsar, get off at the first stop outside town and then hitchhike as far south from there as possible. The first stop north of Amritsar was the most tragic scene of kids wading through garbage that I've ever seen, and that's where I got off. There's something unspeakably tragic about a kid standing in a pile of rubbish and floundering a kite that would fly quite well if it just had a little bit of bend in it, but the cheap paper it's built out of simply can't be made to curve.

Indian guards along the Pakistan border
Indian guards along the Pakistan border

The long black concrete vanishing in the distance of an unknown horizon is it's own form of dark alley. Every lift I got that day—and I got around six—spent most of the ride trying to convince me that I absolutely shouldn't continue trying to hitchhike. In fact, more than half the drivers insisted on dropping me at a bus stop or a train station, even if they were heading further south. They simply couldn't understand. I couldn't tell them that 10 super friendly people just helped me—it wouldn't make a difference. They warned me that the people in the next city over or the next state were horrible, unfriendly, untrustworthy robbers. The fact of the matter is, India has an enormous socioeconomic gap. The poor people don't drive cars and it's not worth it for rich people to rob poor backpackers.

Most of the cars that picked me up were fairly fancy imports with affluent passengers, but one was a beater with three young Sikhs. The driver got out to help me put my bag in the trunk.

Young Sikh: Where are you going?
Me: Anywhere. Where are you headed?
Young Sikh: Nowhere. Wanna come?
Me: Sure.
...inside the car...
Young Sikh: Where are you headed?
Me: South.
Young Sikh: I've never heard of that before.

Four guys that gave me a lift out of Amritsar
Four guys that gave me a lift out of Amritsar

After a short ride the Sikhs left me on the side of a highway heading east. Slowly people gathered around me, as they had done at every other place I stood. They were curious, mystified, and worried. At least one person in the group could always be made to realize what I was trying to do, and then he or someone else would proceed to lecture me about how dangerous and difficult it would be, and often try to flag down a bus. "It would be way less difficult if there wasn't a group of people standing around me" I would always fight the urge to say. It didn't matter where I stood—even on the open highway people appeared. As darkness became the reality I was faced with two main options: flag down a bus headed to Delhi and roll into town around 3am, or head back into the city I was just outside of and hunker down for the night. I took the second option. The city I stayed in was nothing special: it had no Statue of Liberty or Taj Mahal, it wasn't inside of a Yellowstone National Park, and it didn't have a tourist infrastructure. It was the real part of a country that exists between the places on a map. It was India.

Being alone in a strange city unused to tourists didn't result in trouble. Walking down the streets of that city in power-outage darkness didn't result in trouble. Bad things do happen, but to a large extent it's luck of the draw. Most of the things that people avoid out of fear don't reduce their chances of finding trouble. Traveling scared is hardly traveling it all, it's just changing scenery.

Soundtrack: Life's Been Good (Joe Walsh)
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Dead Leaves and Concertina Wire

All is well
All is well

All the names in this article have been changed.

Ahmed sat three bottles of whiskey down on the table next to me and started working at his hash. It wasn't even 6am yet. Ahmed was the friend of a guy that I met on the street while looking for a ride to Kashmir. By riding with this guy that I'd never met, I would hopefully save myself a day of travel and a lot of frustration. I was told to meet Ahmed at 5am at a hotel not far from where I was staying. When I arrived at the hotel just after five, the gate was closed and no lights were on. I let myself in and started wandering around. A tiny glowing mouth-level red dot called through the darkness "come". I made my way to it. Ahmed told me to put down my bag and have a seat.

He turned on a light and asked me if I wanted a cup of chai. Ahmed had graying stubble of the kind you get after a three-day weekend of hard drinking. The bags under his eyes weren't overly noticeable on his dark skin. He was dressed well, wearing a black leather jacket and a turtleneck sweater. "I told my nephew that I didn't think you'd come." He said. He was obviously in no rush to get going. After I had drunk two cups of chai and Ahmed has smoked his first hash cigarette, Ahmed told me to leave my bag and come with him to get the car. I wasn't sure why I was needed to fetch the car, and still now I'm not sure why.

Ahmed on the pier of his family's houseboat
Ahmed on the pier of his family's houseboat

Ahmed drove a black Hyundai with a shiny black leather interior. He started the car and reggae came on the stereo. We drove back to the hotel and collected our things, then set off for Kashmir. "This fucking road." He said as we were descending out of town. His exclamation surprised me since I'm not used to hearing Asians swear. When we hit the first large road, Ahmed said to me "If anyone asks, like a police, just say we're friends and you're coming to visit my family." "Ok" I told him. He spoke with the volume of someone loosing their hearing. When we got on the highway he said "I have three bottles of whiskey in the trunk. If anyone asks, like a police, just say they're for us to drink." I knew there were three bottles of whiskey in the car, they were sitting next to me all morning while I waited for him to get ready. "Fucking police" he threw in.

We weren't on the highway long before we pulled off to get gas. At the gas station Ahmed got the emissions on his car checked. From what I could tell, all that meant was that he paid a guy at the gas station about 1USD for a document which would save him $9USD in bribes if we got stopped. Then we got some chai and Ahmed smoked some more hash. We made several stops for chai and hash throughout the journey. We pulled off on a mountain pass where he said it would be a nice place to smoke, and got out of the car. Ahmed started rolling a joint, then as monkeys surrounded us we got back in the car. We watched as large trucks slowly went by. "My dream is to drive a truck like that." He told me. "In the morning you're here, at night you're there." I've never met an adult that told me they dreamed of being a trucker. "If I had a truck like that, I would put 100kg of hash in it and drive down India. Yeah man, full power. You do that once and you're rich. But if you get caught... fucking police. The first time it's not so bad." He was fond of the phrase "full power" and when he said it a reminiscent smile of good days in the past was discretely visible on his face.

Innocent looking monkey
Innocent looking monkey

Ahmed drove fast and took chances when passing, especially around blind curves on the edges of cliffs. Most of the drive was blind curves on the edges of cliffs. Many people in Asia drive like that and it doesn't phase me anymore, but Ahmed's reaction time was getting slower with each additional splif. As we approached the Kashmiri boarder, Ahmed suggested I put on my hat. "You look like a little Kashmiri. Maybe they won't stop us." A jeep in front of us slammed on their brakes and we screeched and swerved and just barely missed them. There were a couple more close calls. You put your life in jeopardy any time you step into a vehicle in most places in Asia. I knew this. I recently told a friend planning to go to Asia for nine months that the most dangerous situation they're likely to be in during their entire trip will involve a vehicle. About 30km from our destination it finally happened: someone stopped short and we rear-ended them.

I saw it coming and had time to brace myself but not to stop it from happening. We weren't moving too fast by the time we hit them so the damage wasn't too bad an no one was hurt. The car we hit flew forward, then stopped, then four guys got out, one carrying a cricket bat. Ahmed got out to meet them. The accident happened in an unlit dusty village, and when the car lights turned themselves off I could barely see what was happening. Ahmed came back to the car. "Do you have any money with you?" he asked. "Yes, a little" I said apprehensively. He went back to the men and I saw him offer them some money. The driver of the other car didn't seem to think it was a fair price and they started arguing. Ahmed returned to the car. "I'm in big trouble." I waited a minute to see if he'd continue, then bit: "What kinda big trouble?" I asked uneasily. "I have to get my bumper fixed." He said. That's it!?! I thought the guy we hit was like the mayors son or something. Apparently the other driver had accepted the bribe and we were free to go.

Boy looking out over the canals of Srinagar
Boy looking out over the canals of Srinagar

"If my family asks about the accident, tell them you didn't see what happened. Only if they ask, otherwise, shanti shanti." He was also quite fond of the word "shanti" which I took to mean everything from "take it easy" to "smoke some hash" to "keep your mouth shut". On the way to Kashmir Ahmed had asked me if I had a place to stay and I told him that I didn't. He had told me that I could come stay with his family and I'm glad chose to take him up on the offer. We arrived late at night and I doubt I could have found a decent place on my own. Also, it was fucking cold and I didn't have the warm cloths to be wandering around. It was winter in Kashmir and I had light fall cloths at best.

Ahmed's brother, Omar, owned a houseboat called the HB Woodrose. In the summer Omar rents his boat out to tourists, but in the winter there's literally no tourists so it was vacant when we arrived. Ahmed stayed with his family on their group of houseboats, and I had Omar's boat all to myself. Omar invited me to come eat dinner on their boat. We sat on the floor of the one room with a TV and a space heater, and even then you could still see your breath. The temperature was well below freezing. There was no form of space heating on my uninsulated houseboat, but my bed had an electric blanket. That night I curled up in a ball under the blankets, my head the only thing exposed to the air. Sheets of cold pierced down on my face—probably my breath crystallizing and stinging my skin.

Old house in Srinagar
Old house in Srinagar

I woke to an early morning call for prayer, then waited for the sun to come heat things up. It never came. That day was as cold as the previous night. If you've ever had your hair stand at frigged attention while taking a hot shower, you know the type of general, penetrating cold I'm talking about. Before bed I met Ahmed in the kitchen of my boat; he had come on board to sneak some whiskey. When I was leaving in the morning I noticed the bottle of whiskey that Ahmed had been drinking from was half empty. "Where's Ahmed?" I asked Omar. "He went to get his papers from the police station." Omar replied. I knew Ahmed wasn't at the police station and I didn't let on, but I couldn't help but wondering where he was. Gambling? I let it drop from my mind. Omar took me to shore and showed me where the bazaar was. I bought some local walnuts and almonds then started walking for the old city.

Everywhere I looked—around trees, besides buildings, along fences—the streets were ornamented with dead leaves and concertina wire. Is this a war zone? When was it last a war zone? When will it be a war zone again? The air smelled like the smoke given off by a brown oak leaf under the flaming stare of the sun through a magnifying glass. Kashmir is known for handicrafts, not the least of which is wood carving. The ancient houses of Srinagar's old city were made of slumping brick and intricately carved walnut wood, both faded to the color of soil that's lost all nutrients. It was too cold for street cows in Srinagar and the dogs were all huddled up for warmth. Hawks ruled the barren city. As evening yielded to night, I hurried back to my houseboat.

Eerie island in Dal lake
Eerie island in Dal lake

There's no word to describe the weather the next day but gloom. A haze that was neither fog nor dust nor pollution hung around. Ahmed had told me that an old friend of his was a boatman and would take me on a full-day tour of the city and lakes if I wanted. In summer, Kashmir is India's escape from the heat, and Srinagar is packed with tourists being rowed around with heart shaped paddles in long wooden boats with padded beds and shade awnings. In the heart of winter, the main lake is frozen and channels are made through the ice for residents to get around. I wasn't particularly interested in a boat ride, but since I had nothing better to do and it was usually "the thing" to do in Srinagar, I grabbed a blanket and my warm booties that I bought in Nepal when it was too cold to go barefoot and my socks were too dirty to safely wear, and hopped in Ahmed's friends boat.

Our first stop of the day was at the first floating post office that I'd ever been to. I had some things to mail that I had painstakingly written in the cold of the night. While writing I had to pass my pen under the flame of a lighter every sentence or two to keep it from freezing. Then we glided off into the calm. An island with four naked trees came on through the haze as the sound of reverberating prayers murmurously closed in all around. There was an empty boat docked at the island and I was startled not to find an undead old woman haunting around the trees. The day got less creepy as we started following the shore. The driver of the boat made frequent stops to smoke some hash. "Shanti. Shanti." We were taking it easy.

Message above someones door in the old city of Srinagar
Message above someones door in the old city of Srinagar

That night I talked with Ahmed on his family's boat house and came to understand him better. "When there was trouble in Kashmir, I left." He told me. They were showing religious stories on TV. "All this fucking shit. You don't know if you're supposed to come or go." Ahmed just wanted to live a simple, indulgent life. "Pakistan, India. All this fucking war. Shanti. Shanti." He wasn't untrustworthy, in fact he was very kind. The following day he drove me around to Srinagar's famous gardens, which had a certain decaying charm to them that time of year. I got to talking to Omar that night. Life in Kashmir is tough, and not just because of the conflict. The winters are brutal and there's little to do or eat. Tourist season is the only of year they make any money, and business is still slow due to the history. Omar told me that I was the first American he'd seen in 20 years. I lived with Omar and Ahmed for four days on their houseboats and they treated me like family. There's a lot of hash and handicrafts and praying in Kashmir, and a very interesting history, but the people are hearty and honest. Kashmiri's want independence, but they don't want war: they just want to keep things shanti.

Soundtrack: Kashmir (Led Zeppelin)
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A Beau Danger Mountain Experience

Mountains above Manali
Mountains above Manali

It had been a while since I almost died on a mountain, and of all the places I almost died on this trip, the mountains around Manali would be my first choice. At least that's what I told myself when I was up there. I felt like I had finally hit my stride in India. I had gotten a grip on the transportation system, I felt like I could stomach any food, and I was starting to figure out how things "work". I was also following the tourist trail and playing it safe and easy.

My first stop was a city called Rishikesh. The Beatles visited the peaceful mountain town back in the late 60's, and since then it's become a western tourist pilgrimage, "the world capital of Yoga", and where my least favorite type of tourists in India are born. You can spot the tourists I'm talking about from down the street because they're barefoot, despite having a good pair of shoes and sandals with them, and they're wearing "traditional" Indian cloths that modern Indians don't wear. Modern Indians wear jeans and t-shirts just like most of the people in America. I should say the men do. Most of the women in India still dress in the traditional garb, which is also true in many other parts of Asia.

They're the type of tourist that wears a bindi on their forehead but don't know the first thing about Indian culture or religion. They talk in a high soft voice with the last syllable of each sentence dragged out. "Oh. Yeah. I loved India. I stayed in an Ashram for two months." They eat Chicken Tikka Masala, a popular which likely originated in the UK but can be found India for tourists, and they're from parts of Portland or Madison or San Fransisco. So Rishikesh wasn't my bag; I moved on.

The city of Manali, surrounded by mountains
The city of Manali, surrounded by mountains

The next city was also on the tourist trail, but because it was fall there and temperatures dropped below freezing in the evenings, all the tourists stayed away (with the exception of a few Austrians). Manali was a charming mountain town and the fourth place I visited in India that I'd heard referred to as "The Switzerland of India". If any place deserved the title, it was Manali (and I've been to Switzerland before). Manali is literally surrounded by snow-covered mountains. It's divided into two regions—Old Manali and New Manali—separated by a charming forest. Domestic tourists, of which there were quite a few, stayed in resorts outside of town and spent most of their time on "Mall Road" in New Manali. I found lodging in the mostly-closed-down Old Manali, which I had pretty much to myself.

For many people the word "Paradise" is intrinsically linked to the word "Tropical", but for me the word "Paradise" conjures up images of a sleepy mountain town full of apple and cherry trees that have almost entirely lost their leaves, and smiling locals and beautiful yaks and puppies everywhere. In paradise the air smells of wood from the fires used to cook and heat houses. In paradise the hiking trails are minimal and unpolluted. Late November in Manali is pretty close to my idea of paradise.

Sunset on the mountains across they valley from Manali
Sunset on the mountains across they valley from Manali

Every night as I stood bundled up on my balcony watching the sun set on the mountains across the valley, I thought "Those mountains aren't so high. Tomorrow I'm going to climb one." And eventually I did. I figured there was no way I could get lost since all I would have to do is go down and then I'd be in the valley and could follow the river back to town. I figured I wouldn't need too many supplies since it would just be a short hike up a small mountain. I figured it would be safe to go alone. Still, I brought my basic survival supplies: knife, rope, lighter, compass+mirror, flashlight, metal water bottle and chocolate.

I walked across the valley and found a place at the base of the mountain near the line I had sighted. The initial climb up a loose scree was a bit challenging but I figured it would get easier after that. The notion that things would get easier just a little higher up soon became my mantra. The underbrush was far thicker and thornier than I was expecting, but I pushed on through. Then I came to a 4m/13ft vertical face that I couldn't go around because of steep gorges on either side. "Well, this is it" I thought "It's do or die" and began to climb. The first couple rock holds were relatively easy, but then the stone became smooth and I couldn't find any footing. At that point I was about 3m/9ft off the ground. I spotted some brush limbs hanging down and some tall dry grass that I could just reach if I leaped. Dreaming that the stunt would be filmed for use in a future Mission Impossible, I jumped up and grabbed hold. The branch and grasses held. I pulled myself up as a shower of dirt and debris rained down, partially blinding me.

These mountains don't look so big or hard to climb, do they?
These mountains don't look so big or hard to climb, do they?

The next several hours were more of the same. I realized that every time I had to jump or pull myself up by a clump of long grass, I was limiting my ability to go down the way I had come. "I just have to get to the top. There'll be some sort of trail along the crest of the mountain; there always is." In retrospect I was starting to suffer from delirium caused by altitude sickness and dehydration, but it's hard to accept that at the moment. I foolishly pushed on as I got more exhausted and the air got thinner. My little metal bottle of water was empty within a few hours. I had convinced myself that the only way off the mountain was up.

The slope was steep, the vegetation was dry, and the earth was loose. More times than I could count on my fingers I found myself sliding down the mountain and just barely grabbed hold of something before falling off a cliff. On a couple occasions I literally grabbed something as I was falling off a cliff, and hung there like a cartoon character until I could muster the strength to pull myself up. Then, moving a few steps at a time, I'd push on.

View from the mountain I climbed. It was worth it.
View from the mountain I climbed. It was worth it.

At about three o'clock I realized that I'd been hiking for five hours and the sun would be down in two hours, and once it was, the temperature would drop very fast and the light would quickly disappear. I knew I didn't have the warm cloths to be out at night, and there was no way for me to traverse the terrain in the dark, even with a flashlight. It was about that time I heard some very loud rustling in the woods not to far from me. I knew the chances were very very very small that it was a person, but I was delirious so I ran over to see what it was. It was a baby bear. It was all fat and cute for the winter and took off as soon as it saw me. I couldn't find the mother and that worried me. I started banging my metal water bottle against rocks as I hiked, though climbing with one less hand added a new element of danger.

False summits abounded. Every time I thought I was nearing the top, I would crest a peak and find more mountain. I had been forced to abandon my original line, if ever I was truly on it, due to the tricky terrain. It was around five o'clock when the sun was starting to dip behind the mountain over Old Manali that I came across a dying glacier. It was a molecule of what it once was, but I could see where it had been. As it lay there dying and helpless in the evening light, I asked it for help. "Could you spare some water?" It was producing a small trickle. I filled my water bottle and drank. It tasted like ice. I filled it again and carried on. I could have built a fire and sterilized it, but I knew I didn't have time.

Fresh, hot, Thenthuk (Tibetan soup)
Fresh, hot, Thenthuk (Tibetan soup)

It was shortly after the glacier that I met up with a game trail. I followed it in the downwards direction until it stopped at the edge of cliff. "I ain't going out like this" I said, and then jumped onto the steep bank of the nearby mountainside and, in a semi-controlled slide, began rapidly descending through thorn bushes and undergrowth. I stopped before another cliff and began to climb horizontally across the mountain. It was then that I spotted it: an old village trail. It was barely visible and looked as though it had barely ever been a trail, but it was a real, human-made trail. In the best of light only a few meters of trail were visible, and twilight was quickly metamorphosing into darkness. At times the trail forked and at times it disappeared altogether, but I trusted my gut and made it down the mountain. It was still about 8km back to town when I reached the bottom, but luckily an auto-rickshaw happened to be going by so I flagged it down and paid more than I should have to get a ride back home.

When I got back to my hotel I didn't know what I wanted to do first: bandage my wounds, remove my splinters, take off my cloths, take some medicine for the pounding headache I had. I had debris in my underwear and tree-sap in my bellybutton. At no time previously on this trip had a hot shower been so well received. I got some hearty Tibetan soup and then climbed into bed and reflected upon my journey. Bushwhacking onto a mountain by myself probably wasn't the brightest idea, and if anyone had been with me I'm sure we would have concluded to find a way down long before I descended, but it was an amazing experience. One time while I was sitting there peeling an orange and looking out across the gorgeous expanse, three large eagles dropped down into my field of vision and glided across the sky with the beautiful snow-capped mountains as their only backdrop.

Soundtrack: Big Rock Candy Mountain (Harry McClintock)
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Pretty Nasty

Taj Mahal as seen from the rooftop restaurant at my hotel
Taj Mahal as seen from the rooftop restaurant at my hotel

I think the air in India is killing me. It's odd that people in India don't wear face masks like they do in other parts of Asia. It's quite possible that India has the worst air I've ever experienced, though I do remember one day in Beijing where my eyes, nose and throat all burned after being outside for just one minute. There was also a pretty bad day in the capitol of Kyrgyzstan... On the whole, I think India is the worst. I recently spent a day in Agra and stayed at a hotel right next to the Taj Mahal. The astounding building was visible from the rooftop restaurant, but only through a thick haze of pollution.

I got up really early to see the sunrise at the Taj Mahal. Sunrise and sunset usually provide the best light for pictures, but not in India. A thick layer of smoke blocks any beautiful rays of light from dancing across buildings and landscapes, but does have the benefit of making the sun appear as a brilliant orange disc in the mornings and at night. Regardless of the lighting, the hard time breathing, and the herds of people, the Taj Mahal was pretty cool. It's best viewed from afar, but an close-up look reveals a tremendous amount of inlaid semiprecious stones. The building itself is primarily made from white marble, which is a stark contrast to the rust colored stones which makeup the nearby Agra Fort.

The Agra Fort, complete with garbage moat
The Agra Fort, complete with garbage moat

An American traveler I'd met in Darjeeling a couple weeks ago, then randomly bumped into in Varanasi, then met up with again in Agra, spent the day walking around town with me (which probably wasn't the best idea given all the pollution). It must have taken us 20 minutes to circumnavigate the Agra Fort. The red fort features a sizable moat which used to be filled with crocodiles but now contains only garbage. The quantity and consistency of the garbage in the Agra Fort moat makes it a greater deterrent than a river full of crocodiles. At one point my friend remarked that it was the worst smell he's ever experienced, and he'd been traveling Asia for a couple months. "Yeah... heh heh heh" I chuckled. I tried to think of a worse smell that I'd come across but couldn't quite bring one to mind. The bad smells all kinda run together in memory. Well, there was this one roadside bathroom along the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan which smelled pretty bad...

Speaking of nasty bathrooms, a reader recently used the general comments section of my blog to inquire about the toilet situation in Asia. Surprisingly, it's no worse in India than it is in many parts of Asia, though it's definitely no better. The first thing to understand about bathrooms in Asia is that they almost never have toilet paper. In fact, they can't even handle toilet paper; it will clog the plumbing.

Piles of burning garbage in front of a shanty town outside the Agra Fort
Piles of burning garbage in front of a shanty town outside the Agra Fort

In most of Southeast Asia they have sprayer jets. They're basically like the sink sprayers that some western homes have. On the whole they're pretty sanitary, but I don't understand how you're supposed to use them without creating a terrible mess. Then there's the places that just have a spigot, like India. In those places you're supposed to use your hand, you know, like how you're supposed to use your hands when eating in those places as well (though you're supposed to use different hands for each task). I've noticed that of all places in Asia, the places with just a spigot are least likely to have a sink with soap next to them.

Then there's the toilet itself. Western style "throwns" are extremely uncommon outside of tourist areas. What do they have? Porcelain squat toilets usually. In some places the pit toilets are hooked up to plumbing and have a method for flushing, but in most places there's just a bucket and a tap and you're obliged to dump a bunch of water down the hole after you're done. If they exist as at all, urinals vary the most widely in terms of design throughout Asia. Sometimes there's a trough, sometimes there's some sort of container on the wall which just has a whole that empties above your feet, and sometimes they come up with something completely surprising.

In modern Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong, you're more likely to find "western" style bathrooms, though even there it's not uncommon to get a squat toilet with a spigot. Interestingly enough, I've run into the most bidets in India, and the fanciest toilet I've come across was not in Japan—though I don't remember exactly where it was at the moment. It all takes a bit of getting used to. Going to the bathroom was easy enough to cope with, but the air pollution still gets me.

Soundtrack: Season Of The Witch (Donovan)
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Love & Death

A body being  bathed in the Ganges while someone pans for gold in the background
A body being bathed in the Ganges while someone pans for gold in the background

I've become desensitized to death. I saw a dead water buffalo in the forest in Nepal and my only thought was "Why hasn't something scavenged that yet?" Death is more out in the open in Asia than it is in America. Recently slaughtered animals are easy to find. Elaborate killing holidays like Lebaran Haji or funeral ceremonies like the ones in Tana Toraja are commonplace. I've visited too many mass graves where hundreds of thousands of people were brutally murdered like the killing fields in Cambodia or the massacre site in Nanking. I saw an old woman die in an alley in China and nobody tried to do anything about it. I saw the last green limb of a bush in a forest fire wither and shake as the water frantically looked for a way to prevent being boiled alive. You can both understand and come to terms with death. I think most people do, and each culture has a unique way of helping with that.

In India they believe in reincarnation. They also believe that the waters of the Ganges will wash away any sins. As such, it's customary to dump recently cremated (or in some cases unburnt) bodies into the river in Varanasi. Varanasi is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities on earth. The winding stone alleyways are packed with pretty much anything that can be found in India. You see a street cow eating the flowers off an alter then someone panning for gold in the ashes of dead bodies. Quasimodo leers up and hisses "Smoke something?" with a cackle like Jafar when he's pretending to be an old man. Death is in the air. At least, the ashes from dead bodies are in the air, but they get lost with the usual air pollution in India. In Hinduism, cremation is the last of the 16 rites of passage a person goes through, along with being named, going to school and getting married. Two of the biggest celebrations centered anyones life in all the places I've been to are death and marriage.

Symbol of inner desire
Symbol of inner desire

Everyone is looking for love. I've noticed that even people who have to worry about what they're going to eat or where they're going to sleep, spend most of their time worrying about how attractive they are to the opposite sex. This is true even in the places in Asia where people don't find their own mates. In China, grandparents wander parks with pictures of their grandchildren and try to convince other grandparents to have their grandchildren date. In Kyrgyzstan bride-napping is still practiced. Here in India, arranged marriages are still very common. Nearly everywhere in Asia, parental approval is necessary before marrying. While lost in the tangle of local Indian trains I met lots of young Indian men with broken hearts who told me "I should have just waited for my parents to pick a girlfriend for me." They had found love on their own, been dumped and now are more than happy to let the conventional matchmaking system work its magic.

The urgency for sex is still there of course. I've had a lot of young Asian men lament to me about their sexual frustrations. In most places in Asia premarital sex is taboo if not forbidden. They feel comfortable talking to me about it because I'm an American. The world seems convinced that everyone is having sex with everyone all the time back in America. I can see how they get that idea from movies and TV shows, but I've done what I can to dispel that myth. I've also explained to many Asian teens that even for those who are more sexually active, promiscuity isn't as great as it seems.

Rows of carvings outside Khajuraho temple
Rows of carvings outside Khajuraho temple

I recently discovered a time and place where promiscuity didn't seem frowned upon and sex definitely wasn't taboo. It was the ancient culture of Khajuraho. In the relatively barren countryside in north-central India lie the remains of an 85-temple strong empire and the tourist infrastructure that surrounds it. Magnificently carved temples built from a variety of stones, are encrusted with statues depicting Hindu gods and a myriad of sexually explicit scenes. In all my travels I've never come across an ancient temple complex which was so exquisitely built as the one in Khajuraho. The detail with which the carvings were originally made, the extent to which they were preserved, and they way in which they were restored was staggering. There was so much going on and so much detail that it was hard to take it all in. One thing I definitely learned from reoccurring scenes was that if you're going to have sex while standing on your head, it's a good idea to have a couple people help you (preferably women with overly-spherical breasts).

Unlike death, I'm not sure that anyone really understands love. Sure, lots of people come to terms with it, but I don't know if it can truly be understood. Perhaps that's why it seems to occupy more of people's lives all around the world. Interestingly, the customs around love seem to be more uniform than those around death. As a traveler, the two subjects are always in the back of my mind, but perhaps for different reasons than they are in the minds of the people inside the countries I travel.

To see the more racy carvings, check out the photo gallery.

Soundtrack: Somebody To Love
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The Slow Train To Enlightenment

Bhutanese temple
Bhutanese temple

The woman next to me curled up in a vertical ball and died. That was rude of her; a vertical ball takes up more space than standing. But there's no "rude" or "civilized" on the unassigned cars of the Indian Railway system, just every man, woman and child for themselves. She wasn't really dead, just waiting like a water bear for the environment to become more hospitable so she could recall herself to life. You do what you have to on those trains. You wind up in those places if you don't have a reserved ticket. Reserving a ticket at the station in an demonstration of beautifully convoluted bureaucracy. Getting a "general" ticket is an introduction to India.

I tried to take the slow and painful approach. The person at the third ticket office I went to told me they couldn't book tickets for today's trains anymore, but if I got a general ticket I could upgrade to a sleeper for the 17hr journey once I was on board. The guy in Seat 61 said "...you can safely forget any pictures you've seen of overcrowded Indian trains with people on the roof or hanging on the side." He obviously missed the local Indian rail experience. I hit bad timing once again: another large holiday was upon me and everyone was going everywhere. Throughout my nightmarish journey I learned that despite being one of the largest employers on earth, the Indian Railways only has one nonuniform attendant per class (many cars) of train.

I also discovered that general tickets don't list the platform, train name/number, or departure time. Nor, as is the case in every other country that's ever had a train in it, do the stations have a marquee denoting the arrivals and departures, the platforms have any kind of markings whatsoever, or the people sitting behind the desk that says "Can I Help You?" speak English (while nearly everyone else in the country does). Suffice to say, I got on the wrong connecting train. The upshot is that they don't check, and really couldn't check, tickets in the general class, so I rode the rails all day for free—not that I would have ended up spending a full US dollar if I paid. But through all the fighting for space and wrestling for air, there was always a super kind Indian person trying to help me.

Lassi, symbolic of my recovery
Lassi, symbolic of my recovery

There's always someone trying to take advantage of you in India for every person trying to help you, and therein lies the rub: there's always someone. After failing to push my way off of the wrong train three stops in a row (mind you that with my pack I'm about twice the weight and 130% the height of nearly everyone in India), I hovered there and cried. I say hovered because you're not really standing in the general admission trains, just being propped up against a mass of people. I found it interesting that the Indians seemed so effected by this sight. They see deformed and amputated people on the streets, they see people dying of hunger and disease, they could see tragedy anywhere they look. But a stupid white guy with nothing really to cry about trying to hold back tears on a crowded train seemed to move them. India gets the best of everyone eventually.

I hung in there and eventually I made it to Bodhgaya, the place that prince Siddhartha sat and meditated so he could become the Buddha. The exact tree he was sitting under when he achieved enlightenment is still there, though they built a giant temple right next to it. I have to say it's surprisingly ugly as far as trees go, and I'm one who loves to see the beauty in trees. There was no peace or enlightenment for me there, just a bunch of people come to pray and worship. Much as in Lumbini, Nepal, where Siddhartha was born, every Buddhist country built a temple in Bodhgaya after their own style. That provides a wonderful opportunity for anyone who hasn't been to nearly every Buddhist country on earth. It gave me a chance to see a Bhutanese temple, which is nice since it's unlikely I'll go to Bhutan anytime soon. It also gave me a chance to pick up something nasty.

Why is it that terrible sicknesses always start just after departing on an all day journey? I'm not certain if I had dengue, malaria, food poisoning or something else, but it felt an awful lot like lyme. 104°F/40°C fever but freezing cold, bones felt like they were breaking, headache, fatigue, muscle ache, delirium. 10hrs on a rickety old bus and no getting off. The local buses never seem to drop you anywhere near where you want to be. This one let off 20km outside of Varanasi. It's amazing that I made it to a place to stay given my condition. I'm not even sure how I did it looking back. The first night passed in a series of hallucinations and trips to the bathroom. The next day I spent in bed. The people at the guest house I randomly stumbled into were kind to me and showed and concern and offered assistance and advice. I persevered. I'm getting better and expect a full recovery by the time you read this. India gets the best of everyone eventually, and I'm glad it got me early.

Soundtrack: You Get What You Give (New Radicals)
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Fool Me Twice

Sign along the road in Pelling, Sikkim
Sign along the road in Pelling, Sikkim

I've been finding myself in the wrong place at the right time a lot lately. My journey into India started well enough. My friend Aabhash escorted me to the jeep stand where a jeep with an empty space up front was just about to leave for the border. As is the case in many parts of Asia, fuel is more valuable than time so a jeep with 12 able-bodied people will wait for hours until two more people come to make sure that the jeep is comically over-packed before it departs. Two men in the jeep asked me where I was going, and I said Darjeeling. They informed me that that's where they were from and that they would gladly help me across the border and to find transport for the rest of the way. "This is going a bit too easy" I thought. It was. It didn't last. It turns out that that border crossing, the one right next to Darjeeling, is only open to Nepali and Indian citizens, I'd have to go far out of my way. A young taxi driver waiting at the border offered to take me to the other crossing for 3,500npr. I had paid just 50npr for an equidistant journey to get to the border, so like I do when someone starts a negotiation with an offensively high number, I walked away without dignifying him with a response. Three shared jeeps + a bus, 170npr and 7hrs later, I was at the correct border crossing.

It was just before five o'clock when I reached the Nepali immigration and I was in a rush to get through before the border closed. I was in an even bigger rush to relieve my bladder, so I ran past the other western tourist who was getting processed just before me. I caught up with her on the Indian side. I was a bit lost, in more than one sense of the word. I was in a city that I didn't know existed and had no idea where it was relative to any of the places I was trying to go (I thought I had detoured north, turns out I detoured south). Dusk was turning to night and I didn't have any local money. "You really shouldda changed money in Nepal" the woman told me. It turned out that she'd been living in the area for years, had done the border crossing several times and was fluent in the local language. "If you were me, what would you do right now? Spend the night? Go to Darjeeling? Go to Gangtok? What about getting money? Are there really no money changers or ATM's on this side of the border?" I asked. "You won't make it to Gangtok or Darjeeling tonight, and you don't really wanna stay here. You should go to Siliguri. In the morning you can go from there to Darjeeling or Gangtok. I'm about to get on a bus there myself, I can help you there."

Delicious chilli momos at The Taste of Tibet in Gangtok
Delicious chilli momos at The Taste of Tibet in Gangtok

She told me that she'd been running a training center high up in the mountains and that some of her students were waiting for her at the bus. It didn't surprise me at all when one of her students who was sitting up at the front of the bus with me asked if I was a Christian. Something about the woman's aspect and perhaps the fact that she said she was born in Madison but was most recently from Tennessee, had made me suspect that the "training center" was a bit more than that. As it turns out, it was mostly a bible college. As it turns out, most of the people in that part of India are not Hindus, but more on that later. The student, who was an Indian guy my age, seemed to like me and asked the woman if I could come spend the night at their school. I think out of well concealed acquiescence, she extended the offer. The way I saw it I had two options: spend the night in Siliguri, or go with them. Siliguri was not an inviting place. I saw nowhere to stay and couldn't find an ATM for the short while that me and the student looked. I decided to follow my new friends to their bible college high up in the mountains.

They fed me dinner and breakfast, lodged me, and sent me on my way with two large books on Jesus. My destination was a state of India called Sikkim. If you look at a map for a moment you'll see that Sikkim and it's neighbors appear in a place which looks as though it shouldn't belong to India, and indeed it didn't used to, and for that matter barely does now. Ethnically it's far closer to Nepal. The people speak and write Nepali, they eat Nepali food and they look like the people from East Nepal. Tourism in Sikkim is highly regulated though seemingly unrestricted. You can go anywhere you want, you just need a special, useless permit to do it.

Last year around this time I made a special trip to Little India in Singapore (which is actually quite sizable as far as little India's around the world go), to see what was up for Diwali/Deepavali which is one of India's biggest holidays, often referred to as "The Festival of Lights". As it turned out, nothing was happening. Not even the nearby pickup ultimate game *disapproving glance in the direction of the Singapore ultimate community, the most serious ultimate society in Asia*. Perhaps I was there on the wrong day. Diwali is a five day festival primarily to Laxmi—the mother cow and wife of Vishnu—goddess of wealth. The third day of the festival is when the biggest celebration happens. This year even though I was in India I was still in the wrong place. I was in the part of India where most people are Buddhist or Christian. There were some festivities though.

Monks in courtyard of Rumtek Monastery
Monks in courtyard of Rumtek Monastery

Modern Diwali is an interesting celebration. Ritually it's like a mix of Hanukkah, Christmas/Halloween and the American independence day. People set out lots of candles, kids light off fireworks, and folks go caroling door-to-door with the expectation of receiving money. Like vehicle horns in Asia, the singing seems to be with the sole purpose of annoying the person into doing what they want, which in this case is to give them money. In Hindu places I'm sure there's more to Diwali than that, but as far as I could tell the people were just using it as an excuse to light off fireworks and go begging door-to-door. I can't say I didn't do both of those things on different American holidays.

Being in a Buddhist area I decided to journey to Rumtek monastery, one of the most important Tibetan monasteries on earth. I think my visit there is best described in the way a young monk greeted me. "Yo, what up bro?" There were little monks with cap guns and a general feeling of not-giving-a-fuck. Perhaps I was there at a bad time. There was a very large Buddhist institution at the monastery and the monks had just finished their final exams. "I'm gonna go watch movies" one of them told me when I asked what he was going to do next. So I pushed on.

Kochapuri Lake
Kochapuri Lake

My next stop was Kochapuri Lake. Due to a lack of public transport I was obliged to walk the 22km there from Pelling. I had been told that Kochapuri lake was "the highlight of Sikkim" and that the trek was beautiful. The steep downward slope that started the hike seemed to be slimy with anger at my trepidation. It forked and forked and forked, winding through villages, sometimes going right between someones house and shed, almost as if it was trying to lose me. Well placed villagers in space and time pointed me in the right direction. Little kids ran up to me and yelled "Sweets" or "Candy" or "Chocolate" or "Give me money." A note to tourists who fancy themselves St. Nich: Stop. I fell over a couple times with my heavy bag on my back, but eventually I made it to the lake; as did scores of Indian tourists in private jeeps. None of them walked up to the view point because... it involved walking, but they didn't miss much. The unspectacular lake was shown for all it's unglory in full view from the neighboring peak.

The lake, with band playing and dearth of food and lodging was not where I wanted to spend the night. Weary as I was, I hiked another 4hrs to Yuksom. "What should I do tomorrow?" I wondered. "Should I continue 'The Monastery Trek' to Tashiding? Go to the Buddha park of Ravangla? Visit the towering statues of Namchi?" No. I was done. Sikkim was fine and good, especially with it's relatively successful "Keep Sikkim Clean and Green" campaign, but it wasn't India and I was anxious for a change. A change of scenery, a change of food, and a change of culture. I knew what I had to do: I had to head south as fast as I could.

Soundtrack: You Are My Sunshine
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Eleph-ino

Wild rhino in Bardia National Park
Wild rhino in Bardia National Park

If a wild rhino charges you your only hope is to climb a tree, and since we were on the river bank no trees were to be found. She was with her baby so we had to be extra cautious. We approached from downwind but the jungle guide, my sole companion, said she was starting to smells us so we had to go. It was good timing since a large male elephant was grazing through a field nearby. We hurried off and were soon face-to-face with the giant.

My trek through the Himalayas was great, but it was time for me to get off the tourist trail and start seeing the real Nepal. My first stop was a national park in the west called Bardia. Three times further from both Kathmandu and Pokhara than Chitwan National Park, Bardia is not highly touristed. When I was there I got the feeling I was the only tourist in the entire park.

Some of the family I stayed with in Kathmandu
Some of the family I stayed with in Kathmandu

Still, Bardia was a place that tourists do go. During my first visit to Kathmandu I was fortunate enough to stay with a local guy that I met on CouchSurfing. Aabhash(right) lived with his mother(left), wife, sister, two brothers(center), niece and nephew in two small rooms behind their storefront. The short glass case in their little shop had a wide variety of neatly arranged snacks and cosmetics. The long glass case had cell phones. There were tables on the sidewalk out front where fresh tea was served. Being the eldest male, Aabhash carried a lot of responsibility. He worked all day doing any manner of task from circuit-level phone repair to giving private mathematics lessons. Aabhash was without a doubt one of the smartest, friendliest, most tech-savvy people I've met on this entire trip. His family was likewise kind and intelligent. Aabhash had friends and family in the east of Nepal but had never had a chance to visit them. Our auspicious meeting presented him an opportunity.

The bus dropped us off in the darkness, a 45 minute walk from Aabhash's village. When we arrived, his relatives were sitting in front of the simple wood-and-mud house, faces illumined by cell phones. The village got power a couple years ago, but like everywhere in Nepal they were experiencing a corruption-induced brown-out (think Enron but everyone knows what's going on and nothing is changing). Dinner was served early. Everyone in the village were farmers so they woke up and went to bed earlier than people in the city. Dinner was prepared over a wood fire and eaten with our hands while sitting barefoot on the dirt floor. It was a typical meal called Dal Bhat, consisting of rice, dal(lentils), gundruk(a cooked green similar to chard), and potato curry. For lunch they made a special preparation of the meal with dhindo, a corn paste, instead of rice. Everything we ate during our entire stay in the village except for the salt, was grown right there. For the rest of my stay in Nepal nearly everything I ate was locally and organically grown.

Special dhindo lunch in Aabhash's village
Special dhindo lunch in Aabhash's village

After dinner we went to sit in a different room. All of a sudden the power came on. The TV flickered, a snake curled up on the thin wood divider between the next room snapped at a bug, and the thick, flat, sand-dollar sized spider on the wall crawled closer to the guy sleeping on the bed with which we were all sitting. A white guy sensationalizing a safe drive through mountains in some foreign country appeared on the screen. They switched the channel. The local news was reporting on a bus that just went off the edge of a cliff. Buses and jeeps go over the edge of cliffs killing everyone inside (though not usually those riding on top) on a weekly basis in Nepal, and garnered no special attention. They switched the channel again. A reincarnation of Steve Erwin was jumping onto a large snapping turtle from the safety of his canoe. They watch The Animal Planet, Discovery Channel and National Geographic all over the world. "People like you are always going into the jungle and jumping on poisonous animals. [They pointed to the nearby jungle] Do you do that?" They're interested in other foreign cultures and exotic animals everywhere, but mostly what they see on TV is a stupid white guy tackling a deadly animal.

Aabhash and I pushed further east. We stopped in a place called Janakpur where Ram (first incarnation of Vishnu) and Sita were married, and took pictures at the only railway station in Nepal (with all trains going to India). Then we dropped in on Aabhash's friend who's a doctor at the most prestigious medical school in Nepal. The university hospital where Aabhash's friend worked was an old British-built military recruiting compound and very little had been altered when turning it into a hospital. Low, windowless, concrete buildings comprised most of the pediatric ward where Aabhash's friend worked. Pigs, sheep, cows and stray dogs roamed the hospital grounds.

Me aboard the Nepal Railway
Me aboard the Nepal Railway

"What's the biggest obstacle facing health care in Nepal?" I asked Aabhash's friend. "Political instability." He replied. Nepal's political system has been tumultuous for the last 62 years, alternating between a monarchy and a multi-party democracy (and pretty much every variation therein), and full on revolution including a royal massacre. The people of nearly every country I've visited on this trip have complained about corruption—which tends to be out in the open in Asia, rather than just beneath the surface as it is back in America—but it seems as though the Nepali people have good reason to complain. Corruption in Nepal ranks #2 South Asia.

"One party starts building a cardiac center, then the government changes and the building stops. Parties gridlock over where the hospital could best use money, and in the end it all gets embezzled." Aabhash's friend told me. There's a big election coming up in Nepal and you can see evidence of it everywhere. Bamboo doors and wooden power poles were adorned with political posters, earthen homes were decorated with party flags. Frequent parades delayed traffic all through the countryside. Instructions on how to vote and explanations on why to vote blanketed government buildings and public spaces.

Aabhash's relative separating corn
Aabhash's relative separating corn

Nepal's current political system is a little different than any I've experienced so far. During the election each person gets to cast two votes: one for a person and one for a party. 240 of the 601 seats on their Constituent Assembly are directly elected, 335 are nominated by the winning parties, and the remaining 26 are appointed by the current council of ministers. There's no Primaries as in America, so when the elections comes each party usually has several prominent leaders. There's around thirty-three parties total, but most of the power lies in three of them: The Communist Party of Nepal/Unified Marxist Leninist (CPN-UML), The Nepal Communist Party/Unified Maoist (UCPN(M)) and The Nepali Congress (NC), with the latter being the primary incumbent.

As Aabhash and I continued east we dodged a political protest which halted traffic in an entire region the previous day. The next day we weren't so lucky. Political activists led by a group which broke off of the Maoist party about a year ago, called "The Losers" by most Nepali, and "The Sore Losers" by me, was staging a violent protest which shut down transport on our way to the tea fields of Ilam. They were mad because some of their guilty party members had been arrested. Despite having more domestic military bases than any country I've ever been too (including the US), all the Nepali government could do was stop vehicles from going to the problematic areas and send them through in groups when things settled down. We waited it out and finally made it to Ilam.

Aabhash and me at the tea fields of Ilam
Aabhash and me at the tea fields of Ilam

"Hopefully soon we have a stable, uncorrupted government." Aabhash's friend had told me. "I hope so too." I echoed. The side of Nepal that I experienced in the last couple weeks was radically different than the side I saw during my first month. Jungles and plains offered a stark visual difference to the towering mountains of Annapurna. Villages in the low-lands were more basic than the tourist-driven tea-houses high up in the Himalayas. Political interest went from a few scattered posters to physical demonstrations. My two-week trek has already started fading from memory, but the people, animals and events of Real Nepal have made a lasting impression. At this point it's hard to say what will result from the upcoming Nepali election, but one things for sure: the country is due for some quality stability.

It's an old joke which is better said than read, but: "What do you get when you mix an elephant with a rhino?" See title for answer.

Soundtrack: Rhino (Ken Lonnquist)
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It's About The Journey

View from above Annapurna High Camp
View from above Annapurna High Camp

They're building a road across the Himalayas. You can now drive to Everest Base Camp where you can enjoy wifi and other modern luxuries. I'd heard a lot about trekking in Nepal—a lot of people have done it. The style of hiking is called "Teahouse Trekking", owing to the numerous small guesthouses/restaurants lining the trails. You can walk almost indefinitely with few supplies; sustenance and shelter is provided for you.

I'd heard a lot about the impressive vistas and the necessity and omnipresence of Snickers bars and the all-you-can-eat dal baht. But no one had told me about the hyper-efficient agriculture or the way the steep mountains cause the fall colors to explode into a horizontal rainbow of green to dead in a single glance across the valleys. The Maoist revolution signs posted on doors and trees were a surprise to me, as was the marijuana growing wild alongside the trail.

Beautiful rock wall
Beautiful rock wall

If you just want to reach high points in the Himalayas you can drive there, or with enough money take a helicopter. But it's not about just getting to the top, at least not for me. For me it was about the journey. That's why when the trail forked off the new road, I took it, even when it was longer and involved far more up and down. I had no external factors rushing me along, and cresting the pass, even at 5,400m/17,800ft, is no exceptional task—thousands of people do it every year and a 68 year old woman did it the same day as me.

I spent the first couple days of my trek alone, passing very few people as I journeyed. Eventually I joined up with a Dutch couple and eight Israelis. Meeting people is part of the fun of hiking in the Himalayas, though as a lonely Israeli guy reminded me in a lonely city near the end of my voyage "You're always meeting up with people, getting to know them and as soon as you form a connection, they're gone." Don't I know it.

Me and some hiking companions
Me and some hiking companions

I was enjoying the company and hitting my stride—the first day of trekking completely kicked my ass—so when most of the group I was with decided to detour to the worlds highest lake (subsequent fact checking on my part revealed that it's not even one of the ten highest lakes on earth) I chose to go with them. Tilicho lake is a two-day side trip from the standard Annapurna Circuit. The second day involves getting up real early to best the weather and give yourself plenty of time to climb the 800m/2600ft scree and reach the lake at nearly 5,000m/16,400ft before turning around and hiking most of the way back to the main trail.

When I looked outside at I saw a giant mountain towering over base camp. "That wasn't there before." I thought. It was a feeling I was starting to get used to. High clouds conceal monstrous mountains and often shift to reveal false peaks and trick you into thinking that the mountain is smaller than it actually is. The Himalayas are a whole new kind of huge and have a presence that can't be captured with pictures. The region is so mountainous that there's no good reference for the true behemoths and any picture you see of the true goliaths has it's base at around the neck of the mountain. Images are deceived by parallax.

Me at the fake Tilicho lake
Me at the fake Tilicho lake

The hike to Tilicho lake was arduous, but for some reason I was able to fly up the path. Eventually I passed all the other hikers. I was passing an Australian couple who had also been making good time when it began to snow. To most people, being caught in a snowstorm high up in the mountains may not seem like fun, but to me and the Australian woman it had it's charm. She had never seen falling snow before and I had entirely missed winter last year and it reminded me of home. The smile on my face was large, but it slowly faded as I sped past the Australians and reached the plateau and the visibility began to diminish.

"My dad will be so mad if I die like this." I thought. "I wonder if I'll be able to follow my own tracks back or if they'll be covered up by then? There's no lake up here, or if there is I can't see it. I know I shouldn't, now that the trail is beginning to get harder and harder to follow, but I'm gonna push on and look for the lake." Eventually I came upon a small body or water. "This is it?" I took a selfie and grabbed a frozen snickers bar out of my pack. "Good, I can still see my tracks." On the way back I met the Australians. "Did you make it to the hut?" They asked. "Hut, what hut?" "There's supposed to be a hut at the lake." A moment later we heard a bell and then a man on a horse came dashing through the storm like the headless horseman riding through the fog. He sped past us. "Well, he must be going somewhere." I remarked. Having company and horse tracks to follow, I felt better about pushing on for the lake. Eventually we came to Tilicho and the hut with the recently arrived keeper starting water to boil for tea.

Dawn at Poonhill
Dawn at Poonhill

I didn't get a good view of the lake like the people that hiked up the day before me had, and I didn't have nice weather on the day I crossed Thorung La Pass like the people that crossed it the day after me did. But the whole time I had an excellent journey. The day after I came down from the snow I took an alternate route through charming Tibetan villages. When I thought the sun was setting on my expeditions I was tempted into taking a two-day excursion to watch the sun rise over Poonhill. I had fine weather for the entire 1,600m/5,250ft climb and descent, but I didn't think the sunrise was anything spectacular. The important part of that journey was meeting cool new people and having a deep-fried Mars bar for dessert.

Weather may suck and sunrises may disappoint. Temples get old and sometimes you don't even reach your destination. If you do everything you can to make the journey more enjoyable, the trip is bound to be a success (even when the highs leave you breathless but unamazed). For me that included taking a 24 box of Snickers on the trail and some of the other things that are worth their weight in emotional enhancement. I found more happiness in the gold colored leaves and the blinding flakes of snow than I did in the tops of the worlds highest mountains. I made some awesome connections and observed a lot of interesting (horti)cultural practices. It wasn't what I expected or what people had told me about, but I enjoyed the journey nonetheless.

Soundtrack: Different Drum (The Stone Poneys)
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Spike

Boys sitting on the edge of bazaar shop in Murghab
Boys sitting on the edge of bazaar shop in Murghab

There's no shade along the Pamir highway. Above 4,000 meters the sun shines extra bright but the wind blows away the added heat. Rain clouds don't often visit that part of the world. Most of the water seems to bubble up out of the ground or run down from surrounding peaks. The feeder streams are always clear but the rivers and lakes are a rainbow of turquoises.

When Walter and I arrived in the Kyrgyz village bordering Tajikistan we were surprised to find Edson, a Brazilian traveler and journalist that we'd met in Osh a couple days prior. Edson was a handsome, soft-spoken, lighter skinned Brazilian with a full head of hair and a full but trimmed beard. He had left for Tajikistan the day before and apparently spent the entire day unsuccessfully trying to thumb a ride at the border town. Few vehicles were traveling the Pamir highway that time of year and in that direction, and those that were were already overstuffed with goods and people.

Heavily carpeted Tajik homestay
Heavily carpeted Tajik homestay

We spent the night in a single-storied mud-walled home-stay with colorful carpet lined floors and walls. Over the next week we became accustomed to that type of accommodation. Edson was on the last day of his Kyrgyz visa and absolutely had to get out of the country the following morning. We left town at the crack of dawn and began the 30km walk to Tajikistan. Around we got lucky and caught a ride for the second half of the distance to the Kyrgyz border. After the typically-convoluted exit process at an isolated outpost in a beautiful valley, we were out of Kyrgyzstan but still 20km away from Tajikistan.

We were laying in the cool sun 16km up the mountain pass separating Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan when a van drove by. It was the second vehicle to pass in our direction since we entered the no-mans-land. The van had been chartered by an American and an Italian man, and had plenty of space for the extra three of us and our gear. We struck a deal and hopped inside. Soon we were at the Tajik border crossing and in for a taste of things to come.

Three girls playing in Bulunkul
Three girls playing in Bulunkul

The Tajik border was more primitive and at a higher elevation than the Kyrgyz one and involved a lot more extortion. For our entire journey in Tajikistan we were frequently stopped—either in the car or on the street—asked for our passports—which were always in order—and often asked for a little "something extra". I could understand all the extra checks if they were looking for drugs, since we were riding the main heroin trafficking corridor, but they didn't search us once.

Tajik people are decidedly more middle-eastern looking than Kyrgyz. They also have more gold-plated teeth, at least what teeth they have. Like most places in Asia even the farmers wear timeless classy suits, though often they and their close remain unwashed for long periods. One aspect you can't help but notice is the overwhelming eyebrows. I saw more eyebrow and unibrow in one week in Tajikistan than I did during any other three months of this trip.

Only scrapped car I saw in Zong
Only scrapped car I saw in Zong

The people in Tajikistan have a few distinct mannerisms. One unique aspect is to freeze with arms at their side when posing for a picture. Another is to completely stop what their doing and look on at cars as if they've never seen them before. Given the low traffic—we didn't pass or get passed by a single vehicle for three days once—I'd infer that this behavior is founded, but the old pastel-colored soviet car frames littering the villages tells a different story.

It was harvest time when we arrived at the village of Zong in the base of the Wakhan Valley just across the river from Afghanistan. Not much can grow in the dusty mountains of the Pamirs. Most people are herders and it seems the only crop is grain for the animals to eat during the winter. The people in the fields all stopped to watch our Land Rover go by. They use donkeys in Tajikistan where horses or machines are used in other countries. Zong wasn't littered with car bodies like the other villages we'd seen.

Boy harvesting grain in Zong
Boy harvesting grain in Zong

After finding a place to stay and having a small snack, we all did separate things for a while. The Italian and Brazilian guy walked to the river to get a better look at Afghanistan while I set off wandering the village. I noticed a kitten sitting by a lonely door on the side of a mud-walled dwelling and went over for a better look and perhaps a photo. As soon as I arrived on the side of the house the door opened. A woman in what I took to be their version of a bathrobe came out. She motioned "embarrassed" and I looked sheepish, said I was sorry, and quickly departed.

Around the corner I came across five boys carrying a couple deflated plastic balls. They all seemed to have the distinct facial type which I imagine comes from mixing Russians with Afghanis. One of the boys began motioning to me the basic strikes of volleyball. Bump, set, spike. The boys all especially seemed to like acting out the spike. In what was most likely a joke, they motioned for me to join them. Much to their surprise, I did.

Me playing volleyball with the kids in Zong
Me playing volleyball with the kids in Zong

Shortly we came to the volleyball court. It was a patch of gray dust where the rocks had been cleared. Two branches had been stuck in the ground and a make-shift rope net was woven between them. I set my camera on the crumbling stone wall which ran along one side of the court and rolled up my sleeves. One boy produced a pump and began inflating a ball. They divided up the teams: me and the two younger boys against the two older boys. I figured this was fair. After all, I could reach over the net without having to jump.

We had only been playing for a couple minutes when the women from the door with the kitten appeared. "Oh no" I thought. She motioned for my camera. "She must think that I took a picture of her and is pissed." I grabbed my camera off the wall and was about to show her that I hadn't taken a picture of her when she began motioning for me to take a photo of a little girl which she had brought with her and that I'd failed to notice as she was approaching.

Mother in bathrobe with daughter
Mother in bathrobe with daughter

Most people in highly-touristed developing countries either hate having their photo taken or want it taken as a means to make money. Either way I'm reluctant to photograph locals and don't get as many pictures of people as I probably should. The people in Zong were quite different in this regard. As I walked through the town later that night I had four different people stop me to take their picture. The woman in her bathrobe simply wanted me to photograph her daughter.

After taking some pictures I went back to the game. The boys were good. Real good. They were disciplined and magnanimous; always bumping when they should bump and setting when they should set, never rushing the spike—which they were all quite good at delivering. I admit that I started off a little easy on them, but I didn't come to Tajikistan to spike a ball on some 12yr old boy. It was evident that they were much better than me and one of the boys on my team gave me the sign "you suck". I understood and motioned that I would go.

Yaks in the Pamir mountain range
Yaks in the Pamir mountain range

I began walking away and had apparently set off in the wrong direction since the boys began whistling and calling to me to tell me that I couldn't walk that way. As I walked back toward the game the boys entreated me to rejoin the group. I motioned that I'd just play a little longer and then I really must be going. I tried a bit harder and the game became more fair. I played a little longer then meandered through town on the way home for dinner.

The Pamir Highway is one of the most beautiful drives I've ever taken in my life. The mountains are young but tall, the hot springs are gorgeous and relaxing, and the landscape is relatively untouched, but the people are the most unique feature in the area. I didn't think I'd come across people living in a less developed or hospitable country than Mongolia, but it seems I have. Life in Tajikistan is different, but like everywhere on earth the people are usually friendly.

If you don't frequent the gallery, now would be a good time to check it out. Also, due to the extreme remote nature of the Pamir Highway, I chose to postpone attempting my anniversary mission. Thanks again to everyone who submitted suggestions, I plan to do something with them eventually!

Soundtrack: Burn One Down (Ben Harper)
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You Shall Not Pass

How I imagine all border crossings will go (photos are forbidden at borders)
How I imagine all border crossings will go (photos are forbidden at borders)

Panic set in as soon as I got off my plane in Jakarta at the beginning of this trip. I had bought a one-way ticket to Indonesia and never bothered to look up the visa requirements. I got lucky. It turns out Americans can get visa on arrival in Indonesia and I happened to have $25 US in my pocket, which is the exact price of the visa. I usually do a good job of researching entry requirements now before I go somewhere, but sometimes I forget. As I was waiting in line at Mongolian immigration I began to think: "Everyone said Americans don't need a visa for Mongolia, but I never bothered to verify that myself." Again I was lucky. Entry requirements in Asia change frequently and often without notice. I've sweat before. "What if I don't get a visa for xxx? I've got a flight out of that country. What if they discover that all the documents I submitted were fake?"

When crossing by land from China to Kyrgyzstan you exit China about 120km inland from the actual border, and the border itself is a 20km no-mans land between the two countries. I left Kashgar for Kyrgyzstan with three French kids that I met in Turpan and a Bulgarian guy that they'd met in Kashgar. The Bulgarian guy and one of the French kids were on the last day of their Chinese visa so they couldn't afford any delays (it's almost $100 US per day if you overstay your visa). There's only two buses per week between the countries and they leave on Monday and Thursday. It was when we left so our only options were hitchhiking or taking a hired van. We decided to take a van to the Chinese border and then hitchhike from there.

The van dropped us off 5km away from the Chinese border and explained to the Bulgarian guy that he was leaving us short of our destination because we killed Osama and Saddam. He didn't know where any of us were from, just that we were white. The Kyrgyz-Chinese border isn't open on the weekends and there's a two hour time difference between China and Kyrgyzstan since China demands on having just one timezone for it's entire enormous country. To make matters worse, you're only allowed to take a hired vehicle—taxi or bus—across the border. We were stuck and the local taxi-mafia knew it. After much ado we made our way across the border. The Bulgarian guy went south to Tajikistan and the French kids and I continued to Osh, one of the larger cities in Kyrgyzstan.

A couple months ago one of my readers asked me to write an article about visa and immigration trouble. I thought about it for a while and got stuck so I decided to email the few other world travelers that I'd met on this trip and ask them for ideas/stories. None of them had had any real trouble or been denied from any country—I suspect that being from well-to-do places like America, Canada and Germany probably factor into that. One of the world travelers mentioned to me that his next stop was going to by Kyrgyzstan, so I stayed in Osh for the Kyrgyz independence day and then hightailed it to Bishkek to meet up with Walter.

Mountain top lake that Walter and I hiked to
Mountain top lake that Walter and I hiked to

You remember Walter, don't you? I met him almost one year ago in Indonesia. He's the guy that took this picture of me. This is what he looks like after getting ambushed by a praying mantis. He'd been traveling for a year when I met him and he's been traveling pretty much non-stop ever since. I rejoined with him in Bishkek at a hostel called Nomad's Home. When I arrived late at night the garden area was packed with people. I doubled the amount of people I'd met on this trip who had been or who were planning to travel for more than one year.

There's a reason for that; they were there to get visas. Recently China had shut down almost all visa services in Central Asia and word had spread quickly that Bishkek was the last hope. In the experienced travel community news spreads fast. In the course of a week, scores of travelers bused, biked and hitchhiked their way to Bishkek in hopes of getting permission to travel to distant and possibly better places. Most of the people were there for Chinese visas, but a few were there for Russian or other county visas. Without warning China decided to cut-off visa services in Bishkek as well. What did all the people in our guest house do? They mailed their passports back to their home country in hopes of getting a visa there.

The Russian visa is one of the hardest to get so most people don't even bother. If you're from some countries it's not even worth trying. An American guy at our guest house who biked from Greece to Kyrgyzstan said that after asking for a full travel itinerary, a color-copy invitation letter with an official seal and his birth certificate, they demanded that he have a Kyrgyzstan visa. American's don't need a visa for Kyrgyzstan, they just get a stamp in their passport which allows them to stay in the country for up-to 60 days. One couple at our guest house had a plane out of Bishkek on the 61st day from their entry and had to go through a lot of trouble to sort things out before their departure.

The fact of the matter is that visas suck and no one likes dealing with them. I'm very much looking forward to traveling the Schengen countries where hopefully I won't have to see immigration officials for a good long while. For me and the other people at Nomad's Home, visas are a first-world problem and we really shouldn't complain, but my friends from some of the places I've visited have real horror stories about getting rejected visas or turned around from places upon arrival.

Thanks to everyone who's submitted missions and detours for my one year spectacular. For those of you who haven't yet, please submit them soon and vote on the ones that are already there. Remember to keep whatever you promise to do in return, to things everyone around the world can do. It's possible that I may have to fulfill these missions in Nepal instead of Kyrgyzstan since once I start the Pamir highway there may not be much of anything but mountains. If that's the case, I apologize to those of you who made Kyrgyzstan specific missions and I'll do what I can to adapt them to Nepal (I don't think they play dead goat polo there unfortunately though).

Soundtrack: Break On Through (The Doors)
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Embrace The Fake

Picture from Chinese border office — At least there's English on it
Picture from Chinese border office — At least there's English on it

In Burma I met some Americans who were teaching English in China and they told me to "embrace the fake" when I got there. I didn't know what they meant and it wasn't until the end of my last visit to China that I figured it out. I had met several other travelers that were frustrated with China and they also had a hard time articulating why. I think the problem is false expectations. China looks like a modern Asian country. The people are dressed fashionably, the train times are listed to the minute, there's big fancy buildings. Behind the glossy appearance, China is one of the least developed Asian countries. The towering new buildings are crumbling from the inside. Their lions are actually dogs. I believe it's the build up and the let down that makes China so frustrating.

When I was in South Korea I went to go see the new Iron Man movie in theaters. It was alright, but I kept wondering when they were going to get to all the parts about China. My friend who lives in China had told me that she was quite surprised that there was so much pro-China stuff in the new Iron Man movie, including a line about how China is who supports Iron Man. Those parts never came in my movie. I did some research afterward and it turns out that Marvel released a different, modified version for Chinese audiences. China's not the overbearing propaganda machine that most Americans envision it to be, it's more of the underhanded, sneaky manipulator that no one expects it to be.

I don't usually use this site as a travel guide. When I want to post information for others I do it on Wikitravel, but for some reason this information seems more fitting here.

Large statue of Mao in China's politically tense Kashgar
Large statue of Mao in China's politically tense Kashgar

Coping with The Great Firewall (GFW): How to bypass Golden Shield

For those of you that don't know already, China rules their internet with an iron fist. Their more-intrusive version of PRISM, officially called Golden Shield and commonly know as "The Great Firewall of China" employs around 50,000 people and cost well over $800 million USD to build. Golden Shield spies, restricts, deletes and redirects all manner of content from web browsing to emails to social media. The few American web services that China allows are intentionally slowed down, partially as an incentive to use their home-brewed knockoffs. For anyone planning to travel in China, I have this advice for dealing with their idiotic overbearing.

  1. Be prepared. Setup any systems and download any applications you're going to want to run in China before you get there. Not only do they employ several levels of content manipulation to feed you altered information and redirect you to unwanted sources, several weak companies have given in to China and provide you with modified applications when you download them in China. Applications like Skype and Opera.
  2. Configure a VPN and/or SSH tunneling and/or Freegate. Sometimes one method works while sometimes the other does. Traffic running over either a VPN or SSH tunnel is equally secure though not all traffic runs over an SSH Tunnel unless specifically directed to. That said, an SSH Tunnel is far easier to configure and requires less server access. One desperate attempt that China makes to keep their people ignorant is to periodically sever the internet for brief periods of time in order to disconnect anyone using a VPN or SSH tunnel. I haven't tried it but perhaps using SSH Tunneling + Screen would help cope with that.
  3. Switch Googles. Google used to be one of those weak companies that bended to China's whims and filtered their results. Now they redirect all their traffic from China to Hong Kong, but if you're like me and you run linux and like to use Chromium as a browser, you'll get caught in an endless redirect loop which renders your browser utterly useless. The solution? https://www.google.co.uk/ncr For some reason Google UK doesn't get redirected and the ncr at the end may help in case it does.

I should mention that after the first time I went to China and started VPNing traffic through my American-based web server, attacks on my server increased about fourfold in both frequency and severity. When I looked into the heightened attacks further, I found that they were predominantly coming from China. The bottom line is that China is frustrating. It's frustrating for travelers, it's inhabitants, and every country that surrounds it. Unfortunately I don't see this fact changing anytime soon. The silver lining is that I don't see them as any kind of economic threat until they "get with it".

Soundtrack: Keep Your Head Up (Andy Grammer)
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Grapes and Islam

Grape field in front of the Emin Minaret
Grape field in front of the Emin Minaret

Shade from the overhanging grape vines make life in Turpan bearable. The metal in the cheap Chinese umbrellas is too weak to support the canopy on a still day and the edges droop down as if melting in the sun. No wine comes from these vineyards, only raisins. This is the Muslim part of China. It's so dry that many of the grapes shrivel on the vine before they're ripe enough to fall off. The rest are hung in hole-e mud duplexes. A series of canals called the Kariz, one of China's three ancient architectural marvels along side The Great Wall, brings water to the grape valleys.

Structures in town are still made of mud, just like the city which used to be here 2,000 years ago. The ruins of Jiaohe lay just outside of town, as do many other ancient sights. You know you're at a Chinese tourist attraction when you see costumes to dress up in to take pictures. In the desert areas there's always camels to ride and pose with. Paved pathways lead through the high walls obscuring Chinas natural beauties. Concrete railings made up to look like wood are there to help you handle the steep entrance fees.

Me on a giant walled-off sand dune by Dunhuang
Me on a giant walled-off sand dune by Dunhuang

More people speak English in Xinjian than in the other parts of China, but I suppose that being an ancient trade route the Silk Road has always been polyglottic. It's one of China's "autonomous" regions, and like the rest, tensions are high and travel is restricted. Buses are routinely stopped and police walk by on trains to check IDs. They pass by the foreigners, they're concerned with the locals.

China's domestic tourism industry is clearly thriving. You can see it everywhere manifested in large groups of red hats following a flag and a loudspeaker. It doesn't take much to distance yourself from the crowds though, just walk a little. "A beautiful part of the country" is how the Central Chinese view the autonomous regions like Xinjian and Tibet. "Tourist Attraction" is the best way to sum up the Silk Road while the main post picture sums up Turpan: grapes and Islam.

Soundtrack: Samson (Regina Spektor)
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My Side of The Story

Zhangye Danxia Landforms
Zhangye Danxia Landforms

My side of the story is, admittedly, the backside. I'm often left in the dark and infer much of what I know. I hadn't seen Beau for almost three weeks at the time in which he showed up in Ulaanbaatar and began inquiring about me. I dare say that I was as happy to see him as he was to see me. I was getting bored there. Ulaanbaatar isn't that great of a city. Beau got bored there too after his return. When we met again, I was ready for action but I could tell that he needed a rest. We both got what we wanted, and in that regard neither of us were happy. I got to move around and explore the city, and I heard stories of how Beau passed his time.

On his first night back, Beau had apparently gone to dinner and then clubbing with his new Israeli friend. I inferred that he had had a good time since he didn't return until 3:30 in the morning. I heard later that he was forcibly propositioned by three very large, very drunk, gay Mongolian men that night, two of whom unzipped their pants in public, one of which took off his shirt and one of which tried to start a fight as he walked away.

The next day he left me at home while he visited the infamous "Black Market". It's not a place where illegal goods are bought and traded, rather a place where cheap but not inexpensive Chinese products are hawked, like most markets in Asia. I suppose it's for the better that I didn't accompany him as someone had managed to unzip the outside of the smaller pack that he had brought with him before he even made it to the market. Nothing was taken but I suspect that if I was there we would have come to fisticuffs.

Mongolian grocery store
Mongolian grocery store

The next couple days passed quickly and I saw a lot of Beau. Then, unexpectedly—I think due to Beau forgetting the date to be quite honest—we left; back from whence we had come. A 29hr train ride from Ulaanbaatar put us in Hohhot, China. Out of Outer Mongolia and back in Inner Mongolia. Did I mention that I love Mongolian trains? There's always plenty of space for both me and Beau, even when we're sharing a cabin with a family who's moving their entire (Chinese) house in their luggage and haven't purchased tickets for their kids.

Stepping off the train from Mongolia to China is like when Dorthy exits the cottage, you hear the first "kaching" of Money, and the drugs begin to take hold. At 2.8 million people, Hohhot is an insignificant sized Chinese city yet has the exact same (estimated) population as Mongolia, and probably uses as much power in one city block—with it's rapidly changing technicolor buildings—as the entire country of Mongolia.

Oh the differences. The people, the food, the smells. Things were open past nine o'clock. The air was putrid and stung. There were people out and about everywhere. I got the distinct impression that we were the only nomads in town. That night we had a home. A real home. Someones home. We stayed with someone Beau had found on CouchSurfing. He proved to be an excellent host and spent the entire next day showing Beau around the city and helping him run errands.

Mosque in Hohhot
Mosque in Hohhot

Seemingly as soon as we arrived, we were gone. Back on another train. But this time it was a Chinese train. Did I tell you that I don't like Chinese trains? The air was hot and thick when we boarded. The windows on Chinese trains don't open, unlike their Mongolian brothers. The car was overstuffed and I was forced to sit on the floor. Now I've been around and I've rested in some pretty gross places, and I like to think that I can travel as well as anyone—after all, I've been most places Beau has for the last eight years and gone through whatever he's gone through, and never a complaint—but the floor of a Chinese hard seat car was the worst.

An hour after we started moving I felt the light splash of liquid. I looked at the table to see what was dripping. Nothing was. Instead it was the young boy, not toddler or baby, on the lap of the woman across from Beau who was openly urinating on the floor. His lack of undergarments made this particularly easy. Did the women try to stop him, scold him or somehow catch the deluge? No. When it was over, did she make an effort to clean it up or call the cleaning crew on the train? No. She just grimaced a fake displeasure of non-ignominy and pretended it didn't happen. Did anyone else do anything? No. For the next hour I watched as the puddle grew closer and closer to me. As it was just upon me Beau spotted a space in the overhead rack made by an alighting passengers luggage, and helped me squeeze up in there. It wasn't comfortable and I look kinda goofy up there alongside all the suitcases, but it was better than the floor. For the next seventeen hours I could smell the urine even up there.

Zhangye Danxia Wonders
Zhangye Danxia Wonders

Eventually it was over, we were off the train and it was starting to rain. We quickly boarded a bus. I hate buses. I'm always in the way and I can tell that Beau is overly concerned about me. I'm usually anxious for the entire ride. It wasn't a long journey into town and shortly after disembarking Beau shielded me with a rain cover. Where was the waterproof poncho when I was on floor of the train? I don't know exactly what happened next, but there were obvious signs of Beau trying to hurdle over a language barrier and then I felt a bumpy rise in elevation. When the rain cover was removed I was in a dingy hotel room where neither the internet or outlets worked, the toilet didn't have a cover and the window to the adjacent busy street didn't close, deafening the room with horns. I remember thinking: "This is the Economic powerhouse that countries are worried about? This is the legacy of a great empire? This country is more modern than most in Southeast Asia? I seem to remember the internet always working and the kids being potty trained at the begging of this trip."

The next day started rough. The hotel turned us out early, which in the end may have been best since we spent a good portion of the morning going to different phone stores in an attempt to get a reasonable Chinese SIM card. I hate being dragged along on those kinds of errands. I don't do any good and I have to just sit there and be patient and watch Beau get more and more frustrated with the unnecessary difficulty of it all. Alas, we were on to bigger and better things that afternoon.

Zhangye Danxia Landforms
Zhangye Danxia Landforms

Beau took me along with him to see the Danxia landforms outside of Zhangye. He doesn't usually take me on trips like that, and while I think I was mostly a burden, he didn't seem to mind having me along that much and I certainly enjoyed being there. I wonder if Dr. Seuss had traveled their in his youth. Perhaps that was the inspiration for "Oh, The Places You'll Go".

It wasn't long after the Danxia that I found myself in the hold of a bus on its way to Jiayuguan, the very end of The Great Wall of China. I was happy to be in the luggage compartment as the fumes from the bus were less vial than the low-hanging smog outside. We were delayed en-route and didn't arrive at the edge of town until at night. At that hour the sidewalks were ablaze with sacrifices being made to peoples ancestors. The temperature was nice. I always feel better when it's fair outside, I suppose because I know that shelter won't be a life-or-death issue. As it were, we walked around town for almost an hour in search of a hotel and were about to sleep in the park when I nice Chinese kid jogging by helped us find a place to stay.

Very beginning of a military academy march by the Overhanging Wall
Very beginning of a military academy march by the Overhanging Wall

The next day I stayed at the hotel while Beau went to go visit the great wall. I surmise that he went to the two sections further from town, and must have walked as it couldn't have possibly taken him that long to return had he hired a taxi. I think he may have learned how to deal with the Great Wall of China while he was in Mongolia. I wonder if he snuck into the park, at times scaling the different walls. Perhaps part of the reason he was so late in coming back is that he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, his forbidden path blocked by a military academy parade escorted by police cars. I wish he wouldn't have worn that bright yellow shirt when he left in the morning. Oh well, he came back safe and sound as he always does. You'd think I'd be used it all by now and wouldn't worry, but I suppose I'm just too attached to Beau.

—The Pack


A note from Beau about the pictures on this site: None of the photos on this blog are ever color corrected or color enhanced. The most I'll do is crop images or remove the occasional power lines from a double rainbow. The Danxia Landforms pictures found here and elsewhere online are authentic, but a bit misleading. The pictures you don't see are the ones showing the relatively small area that the landforms cover or the roads, paths, power lines and platforms winding throughout them.

Soundtrack: Up Around the Bend (Creedence Clearwater Revival)
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Overwhelming Emptiness

Mongolian horse dairy farmer
Mongolian horse dairy farmer

It's almost impossible to explain the overwhelming emptiness of Mongolia. I've never been to a country with so much of so little. Perhaps I've never been to such an undeveloped country either. The "main thoroughfares" are just grass fields. Pavement hardly exists outside the capitol and the next largest cities barely have power or any kind of supplies. A lack of infrastructure makes traveling extremely difficult. There are few intercity buses or trains. Most voyages are made by old Russian military vans limping along and overstuffed with people. Routes are based on the hub-and-spoke system and all roads lead to Ulaanbaatar.

I knew it would be necessary for me to share the cost of transport with other travelers, so I made a post online looking for people interested in joining in an adventure. At I got a message asking if I wanted to go with a group leaving at . All I knew was that the voyage was to take between nine and eleven days and was to cost far less than any other alternative I'd looked into. I didn't know where I'd be going or who I'd be going with, but I took a chance and said yes.

Our van after we pimped it out
Our van after we pimped it out

When I arrived the next morning at the designated meeting place, I was introduced to my new traveling companions. The group was made up of four pods which had come together somewhat last minute and was comprised of two solo Israeli guys, an Israeli couple and an Australian couple. They were all roughly my age. One of the Israelis said to me: "Lets get one thing out of the way. You're American, right? So you must like Ultimate frisbee?" I looked at his bag and saw an Ultra-star strapped to the outside. This is gonna be a good trip.

We were a bit delayed when leaving since apparently our van couldn't enter the city because it was Tuesday and it's license plate ended with the number 2. Seriously. We spent our extra time shopping for groceries. You can really place an English speaker by the way they shop for groceries. Should we buy eggplant or aubergine? Cilantro or Coriander? Tomato or Tomato?. In general, international English is written as the queen might write it (for instance the colour grey) but spoken as Midwestern American might speak (with the most notable exceptions being: alight, queue and lift—referring to an elevator). The Israelis used American English.

The crew I toured central Mongolia with
The crew I toured central Mongolia with

No one goes to Mongolia for the food. For starters, there's really only four dishes: buuz (the steamed dumplings I mentioned in my last post), khuushuur (which you'll learn about later in this post), tsuivan (potato noodles) and fermented horse milk products. Outside of the cities the latter seems to be the main thing consumed. As such we prepared most of our meals. In some ways I was raised culturally Jewish and eating with the Israelis was like taking a bite out of my childhood. Throughout our trip we had tahini, halavah, and made fresh doughnuts and pita.

Our van was packed to the top, and being the last person to join I had to leave most of my stuff behind and bring only the essentials which I expected to need for the next nine days. If only I knew then how long it would really be before I saw my stuff again or what trials were to await me and what equipment I would really need to conquer them. Our voyage was to take us through north-central Mongolia with a stop in the middle to attend the countries largest holiday in a small town along our path.

Naadam horse race
Naadam horse race

At various weekends during summer, each village in Mongolia celebrates Naadam, a smaller version of the Olympic games. The three main events of Naadam are wrestling, horse racing and archery. The only food consumed during Naadam is khuushuur, a deep fried meat pocket. All of the wrestlers wear a traditional uniform and preform some sort of dance before competing. The horse racing takes place across the desert or great plains, and all the jockeys are children riding bareback. Archery seemed to be the activity that people cared about the least, but was also the most different than what I would have expected. Rather than shooting sharp arrows into bullseyes, the competitors shoot arrows with big rubber points into a row of stacked blocks in an attempt to knock over the most red ones. It was sort of like the carnival game where you throw a ball at a stack of cans.

Naadam wrestling
Naadam wrestling

Throughout the expedition we saw rock forms, sand dunes, waterfalls and mountain-top monasteries. We bathed in hot springs and spent lots of time tossing a disc in a county which seems to have been formed specifically for that purpose. On a daily basis we were graced with enchanting celestial events. The stars in the Mongolian countryside are some of the best I've ever seen, and the moon-rises may be unparalleled anywhere on earth. On our first night the sky was naturally so bright that we were able to toss a disc without the aide of artificial light. Before returning to UB I saw four beautiful rainbows and as many shooting stars.

Huge, orange moon
Huge, orange moon

The voyage was not without it's downsides and rough points. Long drives in cramped quarters over unimaginably bumpy roads in a van who's heat exchange is on the inside of the cab weren't pleasant. Fortunately the group knew lots of games, funny jokes and puzzling riddles to help pass the time. Misfortunes also played their part. After arriving at White Lake I decided to go for a swim and wound up cutting my foot. After bandaging it up we embarked on a full day hike and immediately after being dropped off, my sandal re-broke and I was forced to walk on my bare cut up foot. I woke up the next morning feeling sick. When it rains it pours. The following night it rained and our tent filled with water. If you weren't aware of it, the nights are always freezing in Mongolia.

We eventually arrived at our anticipated destination, where we were all set to part ways. The Aussies were heading to the west, most of the Israelis were gonna go north, and I planned to return to UB with the van and be reunited with my stuff. The rough road on the last day of our voyage had damaged the van and I learned it would be laid up in the tiny little town of Moron for 3-4 days, maybe even more. With that knowledge I decided to head north with the Israelis to quest for a shamanistic tribe of reindeer herders living high up in the mountains.

Me and the Israelis
Me and the Israelis

After a 12hr overnight van ride to the village of Tsagaannuur, we were set to depart on horses for the final 9hr portion of the journey. As if I had too much stuff with me already, I was again obliged to pair down my pack. I was starting to long for my things in UB and George Carlin's rant about "stuff" kept playing in my head. A van dropped us off in the middle of nowhere and signaled that the horses would come get us soon. After three rainy hours we resolved to spend the night in the only nearby structure, which was some sort of stable constructed entirely our of animal shit. At two guides arrived with eight horses. One of the men was clearly drunk.

We set off on horses and made the most of the remaining daylight—which was quite a lot during that time of year. We woke up early the next morning and headed into the mountains in search of the Tsaatan (reindeer people). Not long after we left, the guides stopped the caravan. We assumed it was so we could explore the nearby ice sheet which was there all year round. After walking about the snow plate for a while, one of the guides approached us and asked for water. We gave it to him and thought nothing of it. A moment later we saw him take off on his horse, back in the direction from which we had come. We went up to inquire of the other guide what was happening, and found him shirtless, convulsing on the ground. We did everything we could for him and were successful in comforting him and calming his shakes. A long while later—the nearest anything was quite far away—the first guide came back with yet another guide and ushered us away. We protested but the guide insisted. We left the sick guide with all of our water and hoped that more help was on its way.

Our group cresting the mountain
Our group cresting the mountain

That night we crested a mountain and descended into a valley. A herd of reindeer was grazing in a pasture and just behind them were three ortz (tepees). We spent that night and the entire next day with the Tsaatan family high up in the mountains. They offered us reindeer milk and cheese, which we all found to be far better than the mare and yak products which we'd previously consumed. The following day we rode back to Tsagaannuur with plans to depart that evening for Khovsgol, Asia's second largest lake.

Part of the reindeer herd
Part of the reindeer herd

Upon arriving in Tsagaannuur we were informed that due to a power outage which occurred the day we left, they were unable to pump gasoline and we'd have to spend the night in town. Tsagaannuur is, without a doubt, the eeriest place I've been to on this trip, including Japan's suicide forest. The "city" is comprised of abandon buildings with nothing stirring about them. The same few people kept appearing, including an old man our van stopped to pick up in literally the middle of nowhere, and a kid who persisted in standing like and owl and watching us with a blank and emotionless stare on his face no matter where we went. The next morning the power was still out and we learned that they expected it to be for several more days yet. We fully expected our voyage to end there and our story to be the plot for a new horror movie.

There was nothing to do in Tsagaannuur. There was one "restaurant" which wasn't very good. One shop which occasionally opened and carried a small smattering of supplies. We made the most of it. A miscommunication about building a fire to cook with led us to quickly whip up some light Israeli doughnuts. The small market carried vodka and several of us had brought playing cards. The second day there we stayed up late into the night cooking, drinking and having fun. I feel it necessary at this time to point out that so far in Mongolia I've barely drunken any alcohol at all. Drunken Mongolians are all too common and scary, but despite what many people seem to think, I really don't drink that often (though I do tend to consume a lot when I do, which I realize is especially unhealthy).

View out the window of our cabin in Tsagaannuur
View out the window of our cabin in Tsagaannuur

Of course the morning following the night we stayed up late drinking was the morning of our rescue. At a man stood staring at us through the window, a larger image of the creepy little boy. I'm not sure why it woke me but it was a startling sight. Apparently the man was a driver who had been sent from Moron, the city we originally departed from, a 12hr drive away. He had come with two full tanks of fuel, which as it turned out, wasn't quite enough for a round trip. Twice on the way back to Moron we had to stop and siphon gas from other vehicles with a bottle and rubber hose.

A wasted day in Moron and an 18hr bus ride later, I was finally back in UB and shortly reunited with my stuff. I was surprised that there was a public bus from Moron to UB given the road conditions I had previously experienced in Mongolia. My apprehensions were confirmed. At everyone had to get off the bus and many people had to push it up the deep ruts of a steep and muddy mountain. Just after midnight all the passengers got off and pulled the bus out of a bog by a river. It's truly amazing to me that they attempt such a journey at all, and I understand why that's the only long-distance bus in Mongolia that I've heard of.

Our last break in our private van
Our last break in our private van

The nine day trip had turned into an eighteen day voyage. Though I was seriously lacking in supplies throughout the duration, I'm really glad I went the distance. There's no way to describe the majesty of the Mongolian countryside and when traveling is that rough, you can guarantee the journey will be as exciting as the destination. Oh, the Man in Blue? He was just checking in to make sure I was ok. I wound up bumping into him on the street the next day. I hadn't noticed him originally because that time he was dressed all in White.

If you didn't click the link about our Australian travel companions earlier in the post, I suggest you check out the short video they made about the beginning part of our journey.

Soundtrack: Cecilia (Simon & Garfunkel)
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The Man in Blue

Boy standing on a tank in the desert
Boy standing on a tank in the desert

It rained nearly my entire last day in Beijing. I spent the evening with my friend Olivia. She was one of the girls that took me in in the Philippines when everything was booked around Christmas. I left her house early the next morning, low on sleep and low on spirits. It was a clear and sunny day in Beijing for once, but that only intensified my hangover. Getting to the train station was no trouble, but finding my carriage was a bit of an issue. It turned out I was in the other car number two at the opposite end of the train. The part of the train that stops at the border and doesn't go all the way to Mongolia. Despite seemingly high demand, there's only one train from Beijing to Mongolia per week, and it books up fast. Perhaps because of a misunderstanding or perhaps because I bought my ticket too late, I wound up with only a ride to the border. I would have to figure the rest out myself when I got there.

After sleeping off my hangover, I got up to make some cup noodles. While searching for the boiling water I passed a man who seemed out of place. He could see that I was looking for the water and he pointed me in the right direction. As the train neared Mongolia people started getting off my car—but not when we were at a station. Soon I had my compartment all to myself.

I was listening to The Woman in White on my iPod. Yes listening, not reading. I can listen and take in the beautiful Mongolian landscape at the same time. I was quite enjoying the book, though it was doing nothing to lift my spirits. The man who had pointed me toward the boiling water appeared in the doorway to my cabin and motioned for me to stop my book so we could speak for a moment. I gladly complied. He was dressed from shoes to shirt in all blue sportswear bearing a logo with the letters FFF on each piece. His hair was done up in a top-knot as to make him look Japanese. He spoke with the diction and accent of Russian.

Prayer wheels outside Sainshand monastery
Prayer wheels outside Sainshand monastery

He asked me the usual questions—where I was from, where I was going—and told me that he was Mongolian and heading to the border as well. I had a lot of questions for him—When did the border close? Did he know a good place to stay in the border town? Did he know how to get across the border or to my next destination? For some strange reason the man appeared to be anxious to leave my cabin, so I let him go without protest.

Half an hour later he appeared back in the doorway and again motioned for me to stop my iPod. "I saw another foreigner on this car. Did you see her? She went that way, but when I went to look, she was gone." I told him that I hadn't seen her, and he departed. He seemed to take an odd interest in the foreigners on the train. It wasn't long after that before he again appeared in my door and again motioned for me to stop my book. "They're selling tickets to the part of the train that goes all the way to Ulaanbaatar. It's 500 RMB ($80). I thought you might want to know." Ah, so that's where all the people had been going.

I considered the situation. I had heard and read that the China/Mongolia border crossing was a bit of a pain, and that doing it by train was the easiest way. I had also heard that Ulaanbaatar (UB) was a terrible city. My childhood neighbor who lived in Mongolia for several years had put me in contact with several locals and expatriates in Mongolia. Some of them had suggested that I venture to the south Gobi to see the huge mining operation going on in a place called Oyu Tolgoi (OT). I had figured that it was providence that I wound up with only a train ride to the border, since it was far closer to the south Gobi than the capitol of UB. I knew however, that getting from the border to OT would be a much harder task than going there from UB. For starters, I wouldn't have any Mongolian money, a Mongolian SIM card or know anyone that spoke English, and it was entirely likely that I wouldn't be able to find any of those things in the tiny Mongolian town across the border. I had an option: take the safer but longer and more expensive road, or take the risky but more adventurous road. I chose the latter.

The Man in Blue again seemed to be in a rush to leave my cabin, so I prioritized my questions to him. "Do you know of a good place to stay in ErLian (the Chinese border town)?" He told me that he did and that he would show me when we got off. When the train arrived in the evening, I saw the Man in Blue depart quickly and exit the train station without looking back. I did my best to follow him, but he was moving quite fast and not carrying much luggage. When we finally got out of the station I was on his heels. He stopped for a moment—perhaps to check for me or perhaps just to survey the surroundings. Either way I caught up with him and he offered to show me a place to stay.

My train to the Mongolia/China border
My train to the Mongolia/China border

We walked through the city at night and he told me that he was on the look out for an electric scooter that he could buy and take into Mongolia. He walked fast and gave off an air of indifference about whether or not I was with him. I figured he saw me as an inconvenience, but since he was going to the hotel himself, didn't mind if I followed. I treated our relationship in suit. We arrived at the hotel which showed nothing on the outside—at least in English—to denote it as such. He asked if I wanted to split a room, and I said yes. I tried to buy a large bottle of water and he said to me: "Water is 4rmb, beer is 3rmb. I think it's better you buy beer." I bought both. He bought a bottle of beer as well and we went up to our room. It was dirty and smelly and crawling with bugs. For the night, it was home.

We drank our beers and he told me that he used to live in Italy. That would explain his outstanding attire. He told me he spoke Italian and Russian, as well as English and Mongolian. I later learned how similar Mongolian was to Russian in both appearance and pronunciation. That would explain his interesting accent. Then he asked if I wanted to go explore the town.

He told me how ErLian has been growing rapidly in recent years. It's the major market for low-quality goods—especially building materials—for Mongolia. Every day dozens of jeeps drive across the border from Mongolia and enter into the vast markets of ErLian and pack themselves from gears to ceiling before returning home that evening. The border crossing itself is intentionally convoluted and cannot be done on foot. One must cross the border in some type of vehicle. On certain days there's a train that crosses the border, and that's the cheapest and easiest way to go, but it wasn't running on the day I crossed. Once daily a fleet of buses cross the border, which is relatively inexpensive but involves shoving through lines with lots of other people. At any time you can buy some space in one of the jeeps—usually not quite enough space for you and your gear—which costs about twice as much as the bus or train and runs a higher risk of being left somewhere—with or without your stuff—but will get you across the border in much less time and without all the crowds.

Sainshand, Mongolia
Sainshand, Mongolia

As The Man in Blue and I walked around town he started asking people questions. People were very short with him and showed incredibly rude body language. I was taken aback but he seemed unaffected. I figured out why before he told me; he was trying to speak to people in Mongolian, but despite being on the border and all the signs being in Mongolian, no one spoke Mongolian or very much of it if they did. I had previously observed the type of responses that he was getting in Russians, when people tried to speak to them in English. I figured the man was on the lookout for a scooter, but it turned out that he was trying to get information for me. He found out the going rate for space in a jeep, the bus and train schedule, and where the bus station was. It was odd; usually when locals try to help me they're brimming with glee, but The Man in Blue was not.

I resolved to take a bus across the border the next day. The Man in Blue woke up with me in the morning and we took a bicycle taxi to the bus station. The driver tried to rip us off, which set the day in a bad mood. After helping me buy a ticket we returned to the hotel and had our breakfast beers. I was sitting on the ledge in front of the windows in our room—which we had open to air the apartment out—with my laptop sitting next to me playing American hip-hop. Jurassic 5 and tall weak beer: what better way to start the morning in a dingy border town? A sudden gust quickly drew the windows closed, and in doing so, completely destroyed the screen on my netbook. What worse way to start the morning of a long and strenuous voyage?

Shortly afterward I packed up my things, checked out, and parted with The Man in Blue, thanking him for all his help. I went to the bus station and waited. The waiting area slowly filled with people and I struck up a conversation with a Mongolian kid who was sitting next to me with his family. He was returning home for the first time in over a year, after being in the United States and Canada. The nice queue of people deteriorated into a mob when they opened the gate to the buses. Why they choose to send five buses across the border at one time instead of spreading them out throughout the day, is beyond me.

Nice kid from the ErLian bus station with me and his brother
Nice kid from the ErLian bus station with me and his brother

As my bus passed between the Chinese and Mongolian immigration offices, a sandstorm quickly picked up. It blew me back to reality. This is the desert. Weather changes quickly here and people die. I remembered what The Man in Blue had told me before we parted ways: "Always carry water." I looked out the window and saw The Man in Blue standing there in front of Mongolian immigration building, looking cool and composed as the sand blew around him.

My friend from the bus station helped me in crossing the border and then immediately afterward in determining that there was indeed no way to get to OT from the Mongolian border town. The Man in Blue had warned me of that and suggested that I go to the first big city, where I may be able to get to OT and could make a stop at The World Energy Center. In 1820 a monk named Danzan Ravjaa decided that all the energy on earth converges to one spot in the Gobi desert. My new friend independently suggested the same plan, so I figured it was the right thing to do. The kid from the bus station helped me buy a train ticket to the "big" city of Sainshand, and then helped me get a SIM card for my phone. No data service but it was better than nothing. He invited me to come wait for the train with his family, where they treated me to my first Mongolian meal. A woman whom I had mistakenly identified as his grandmother, was sitting with his family and selling buuz, delicious beef dumplings. You could taste that the meat came from free-range grass-fed cows.

Buuz - Mongolian dumplings
Buuz - Mongolian dumplings

I arrived in Sainshand in the late evening and a man from my cabin got off at the stop with me. He didn't speak any English but he could tell that I needed a place to stay, so he ushered me into a Mongolian taxi (i.e. some random guy's car) and took me to a hotel. It was a bit more expensive than I wanted, but it was late and I didn't know if there were any other options around and I didn't want to be rude, so I took a room. Before he left me the man motioned for something to write with. I reached for my notebook, which I had put in the side of my pack for easy access since I had been using it as a journal after my laptop broke, and came back empty handed. He got some paper and a pen from reception and wrote his phone number and the word "help" on the paper and handed to me. As soon as I was done checking in I rushed outside to look for my notebook in the dark. I found it outside the hotel, soaking in a puddle. It must have fallen out when I alighted from the cramped taxi. All the notes, all the journal entries and all the beautifully detailed maps which locals had drawn for me, were soaked. Between the train and the hotel I was left with very little money and a bit anxious about getting more. In the night, Sainshand didn't seem as big as I was expecting.

When I awoke, I looked out the window and surveyed the town. It was as I expected. There was a semi-controlled intersection which I suppose defined Sainshand as a "large" Mongolian city. I later learned it was the provincial capitol. Having no laptop or a data plan on my phone, and hence no Internet, and being in a city where no one spoke English, my feeling of loneliness increased. I set out on my mission for the day: get money, find a ride to OT and go see The World Energy Center. The receptionist at the hotel helped me on my errands as she was very good at understanding body language and pictures and whatever other things I did to communicate my needs. The first ATM she took me to wouldn't give me money. The second one was locked. We were by "the intersection" which is where I could possibly get a ride to OT, but she asked around and no one was going there. Much to my relief, the third ATM she took me to worked. Then she helped me buy a train ticket to UB for 9pm. She called someone to ask about going to The World Energy Center. Due to bad roads, limited time and high prices, getting there just wasn't in the cards for me. Finally, she took me to a museum which they opened specially for us. There, in the-middle-of-fucking-nowhere Mongolia, in an unmarked museum, lay several real dinosaur bones, a full dinosaur skeleton and several dinosaur eggs. Not far from there was the first place dinosaur eggs were ever discovered.

Dinosaur bones in Sainshand museum
Dinosaur bones in Sainshand museum

We had finished all the errands by 10am and my train didn't leave for UB until 9pm. How did I spend my time in a tiny city at an arbitrary point in the middle of the desert? All I wanted to do was write, but both my digital and traditional methods were out of order. I did a lot of the things I wish I did more of: meditate, stretch, work out, shave etc. I did many of them while listening to The Woman in White on my portable speakers. I also walked around the town for a bit. As I approached an abandon-looking factory at the edge of town, I noticed a group of men sitting in the shade below a run-down shack. They noticed me. I had just finished taking a picture of something when one of the men get up to come greet me. I saw him pick up a brick and hold it behind his back as he did. Bad memories from 'Nam flooded over me. It wasn't a good time for me to get robbed, not that it ever is. I had my camera, passport, credit card and the equivalent of nearly $500 USD in my pocket.

The man who met me was short and dark and reminded me a lot of the porters that jumped me in Vietnam. His grin didn't help. He didn't speak English and didn't seem to understand my gestures or appreciate my smile. Another man came up to join him. I did my best to stay cool and escape the situation as quickly as possible. Turning my back on the man with the brick and walking away was one of the toughest things I've done. Don't look scared. Don't look back. I walked away unscathed.

Old cars in Mongolia
Old cars in Mongolia

I decided to walk to the train station at the other end of town. It was about two and a half kilometers away, but I had nothing better to do, and despite being really sunny, a slight breeze cooled the amazingly fresh air. I was listening to The Woman in White on my iPod when a man's shadow quickly came up behind me. I heard a voice call over the book: "How's it going?" I responded instinctively: "Well, and you?" I don't usually give that response to non-native English speakers, but something in the way the man said it had caused me to respond without thinking. I stopped my book. "You're not going to walk across the desert are you?" "No, just to the train station" I told the man. "Where are you from?" he asked. "Wisconsin. Do you know where that is?" "Madison" he responded. "Yes, that's my city. Where are you from?" I asked. "New York" he told me. That would explain why, despite his Mongolian appearance, he spoke English so well—and with a New York accent.

The man was apparently a Mongolian-American who had recently moved to Mongolia and started up a furniture business. He was en-route with a load of goods from the Chinese border to OT, when his truck broke down by this city. He was heading to the train station to pick up a part which a partner of his had sent from UB. We passed a couple hours together and it occurred to me that I could give up my train ticket and ride with him to OT instead. The safe road, or the risky road? This time I took the safe road. I was running low on energy—communicating through gestures is tiring and I wasn't able to jump-start myself at The World Energy Center—and I was getting anxious to fix my laptop. At 8pm the man get a call from his partner: the part hadn't made the train leaving UB, my friend would be stuck there another day. Good thing I took the safe road.

Sainshand train station nearing dusk
Sainshand train station nearing dusk

I however, made my train to UB. Mongolian trains are my favorite so far. They're well designed and well built. You can tell they're solid steel but they feel like a log cabin. Real wood framing and wooden veneer siding. The windows open to let in the fresh and dry Mongolian desert air. Everything folds into something or reveals extra space to store goods, like an NYC apartment. There's ample room for everyone and their stuff, and the free boiled water is heated by fire—which perhaps adds to the log-cabin smell inside. I looked up from my seat and saw the metal luggage rack that my friend and fellow world traveler Nich had slept in some three years ago. It was great to finally put reality to imagination, and I have to admit that I was eying that luggage rack until I realized that the table between me and the opposing seat flipped over, dropped down and created a bed.

UB was not nearly as shitty of a city as I was expecting. Not nearly as crowded or polluted. Nor was it as modern as I was expecting. Apart from the main roads, everything in town is dust. Few tall buildings mark the skyline. Most of the people live in gers (yurts), even in the capitol. Its almost as if they're expecting to just up and go at any time, in the nomadic Mongolian style. On my first day in UB I got a data plan for my phone, washed close which dried in a few hours in the dry and sunny Mongolian climate, got the screen on my laptop replaced and went to the office of immigration to extend my Mongolian visa. As I was on the bus to immigration I got a call on my cellphone. It was The Man in Blue.

Soundtrack: Boulevard Of Broken Dreams (Green Day)
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Rains, Trains and Trees

Aershan Geopark
Aershan Geopark

As I mentioned in my last post, trains are the way best way to go long distances in China, but unfortunately they book up quickly. My friend Moriah and I had planned to go from Huangshan to the Chinese province bordering Mongolia called Inner Mongolia. Due to a lack of seats, we made a several-day stop in the ancient capitol city of Nanjing. Nanjing has all sorts of historical sights including an old city wall and a mountain covered with temples, tombs and pagodas. It poured nearly the entire day that we were at Nanjing's Purple Mountain, but that meant that when we accidentally stumbled into the spectacular bonsai garden, we had it all to ourselves. I can say without a doubt that the bonsai garden in Nanjing is the best display of bonsai that I've seen on this whole trip.

It rained the day that we went to the Nanjing Massacre Museum as well. It was a fitting ambiance for a gloomy sight. During the second Sino-Japanese War, Nanjing had been an important battleground and Japanese soldiers had murdered approximately 300,000 Chinese people including women and children. The bodies were flung into shallow mass graves, some of which were open for viewing. It's something I've seen too many times. The museum itself had an overwhelming amount of information, images and relics. The quote that stuck with me the most was: "There's no crime to this day that the Japanese haven't committed".

Bonsai on Purple Mountain in Nanjing
Bonsai on Purple Mountain in Nanjing

The weather got nicer as we eventually made our way to Inner Mongolia. The rain and European-country-sized cloud of smog which extended down from Beijing, was held back by the great wall of China which lined the ridges of mountain ranges along our path. Our first stop in the north was a city called Ulanhot, where we were hoping to get tickets toward a geopark called A'ershan. A very nice woman sitting across from us on the train spoke a bit of English and helped us buy tickets as soon as we arrived.

Our train to A'ershan didn't depart until late that evening so our new friend asked if we'd like to do lunch with her and her arranged boyfriend. We said yes and took a cab to a Korean BBQ place across town. The food was amazing. It was better than any BBQ I had in Korea. Part of what made that food so delicious was the mix-your-own set of spices that you dipped things in. That turned out to be a common practice in Inner Mongolia and something I hope I find in Mongolia proper.

Our friends in Ulanhot
Our friends in Ulanhot

The food was as overwhelming in quantity as it was in taste. Our friend suddenly sprung up and darted for the cash register, and me and her boyfriend chased her. A fight ensued over who would pay and eventually they convinced me to go sit back down. After lunch they took Moriah and I to Genghis Kahn Park where they treated us to admission and ice cream with a maniacal "Your money is useless here" when I tried to interject. After the park they helped us find a place to stay for a couple hours so we could get some rest. We had been riding by overnight hard-seat trains and had another such journey ahead of us.

You see a lot of shit both on the inside and outside of Chinese trains. On the other side of the window we saw a gang of unicyclists and a pile of manikin parts in the middle of a field. We also saw heaps of trash piles which often had partially busted western-style toilets in them. On one of the rides, a baby that was sitting directly across from Moriah took a dump on the floor—as I mentioned earlier, Chinese kids don't wear diapers or underwear and always have a slit along the crotch of their pants. Moriah took everything—the excruciating journeys and the unpleasant sights and smells—in stride.

Typical Chinese nature signs/translations
Simplified and complicated Chinese nature sign translations

We eventually made it to the city of A'ershan, which is a one-street town with over-sized Victorian style buildings decked out in light pastels. Everything about the city of A'ershan was bizarre, from the all-female Canadian style mounties to the karaoke yurts on the edge of town. The geopark turned out to be much further away than we'd expected, and only accessible by chartered vehicle. We had planned to go hiking and camping all along the park, but it was made clear that that wasn't possible so we hired a cab for the day and drove around to some of the beautiful forests and volcanic lakes.

I see a lot of poorly translated and often funny signs in China. My friend Clelia, who can read both Chinese and English, first tipped me off to the fact that placards in Chinese parks usually have complicated metaphorical notifications in Chinese, but simple inelegant English counterparts. A'ershan was no exception. The trails were lined with hilarious and confusing signs telling us things like: "The Elimination Fire Directs The Trouble Construction Harmonious Society"

Me getting close to the low point on Chifeng ring bridge
Me getting close to the low point on Chifeng ring bridge

Another excruciating train ride away was the city of Chifeng, which was to be our stop-off point for Hexigten Geopark. Due to a lack of information about the geopark and our utter exhaustion by that point, we decided to just hang out in Chifeng for a day and see what that city had to offer. The only point of interest in Chifeng that I could find was the "botanical garden". It turned out that the "botanical garden" was actually a permanent carnival ground. In the center of the park was a large stagnant pond which had all sorts of challenges for getting across it. There were rolling logs, floating platforms, a rope bridge and hanging rings. No one was taking the hanging rings and I shortly found out why. When I got toward the center of the pool it was obvious that any way in which I grabbed the rings would result in me hanging so low that I dragged in the water. At the middle of the cesspool I could touch the bottom of the pond while holding the rings and I decided to just walk to the other side, much to the enjoyment of all the spectators.

Chifeng was a very nice small town that foreign tourists likely never go to. It proved to be a perfectly relaxing place to spend Moriah's last couple days in China. It was just an eight hour over-night-hard-seat train ride from Beijing, which is where I left Moriah in the International Airport terminal as she entered the line for immigration. I've got a day to kill in Beijing and then a sleeper train to the Mongolian border where who-knows-what adventures await me!

Soundtrack: Fool In The Rain (Led Zeppelin)
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It's Happening Again

Tree atop Huangshan
Tree atop Huangshan

China is supposed to be a secular state, though as a local once told me: "The new religion is money". While the country may be rising economically, I suspect they're in for a collapse. I'm not making that statement based on an educated view of world politics, but on the simple fact that as you move across the country you see hundreds of new buildings being built right next to scores of unfinished and unused buildings, almost as if the country had a guilty conscious about an inherited rifle fortune. I even saw them building an enormous new temple while riding through the countryside.

Though most of the religious artifacts in China were destroyed during cultural revolution, many still remain. Outside Chengdu is a mountain called Ching which is famous for its Taoist temples, pagodas and monasteries. I journeyed there in hopes of spending the night at a monastery, but wound up doing a day trip and returning to Chengdu for new thrills. My friend Clelia who I had traveled there to see, had told me of a place in town where you can go skydiving in a wind tunnel. She told me that I wouldn't be very good at it my first time and may have a hard time centering myself and not bumping around in the tube. I turned out to be a natural and my biggest regret was not trying complicated things like flips and spins.

Me skydiving in the wind tunnel
Me skydiving in the wind tunnel

Clelia and I also explored an in-construction building called the Global Center, which when finished will be the largest freestanding building on earth. Later we went to a old Chinese town where I ran into some people from my neighborhood back home. We walked around the old city at night and ate lots of delicious food—something which Clelia is really good at finding.

I could have enjoyed myself longer in Chengdu but I had to catch a flight to Beijing to meet my friend Moriah from back home who was coming out to travel with me for a couple weeks. We did many typical tourist things, including one I had skipped on my previous visit to the capital: The Forbidden City. The tourist attractions were cool, but neither of us are big city people and the entire province seemed to be blanketed in a thick gray cloud which didn't make us want to stay. The next day we hopped a night train to Yellow Mountain, also known as Huangshan.

Crowds at the Forbidden City in Beijing
Crowds at the Forbidden City in Beijing

Booking transportation in China is kind of a pain if your a foreigner. Domestics can buy plane and train tickets online, or at automated machines at the station, but foreigners cannot. Further complicating the issue is the fact that most vehicles book up weeks in advance, so you really have to plan ahead (which you should know by now is something I'm loath to do). The only tickets we could get for the 20hr train ride to Huangshan were "hard seat". It was a bit of a grueling journey but not as bad as I was expecting. My iPod repeatedly questioned my disbelief in serendipity.

We got to the base of the mountain in the morning, found a place to stash our packs, and started hiking. At first I was a little disappointed. I had heard that Huangshan was nicer than Huashan, which was the breathtaking mountain I had visited on my previous excursion to China. Once we got to the top of Huangshan and ventured over to the distant parts, I found out why it was so well regarded. Huangshan featured vertical white granite peaks inlaid with lush green trees somehow growing out of the rocks. Some of the cliff faces were smooth and their peaks rounded, others were jagged and their tops sharp. Stone and concrete bridges spanned the gaps between mountains and spires. Tall, thick, individual stalk bamboo blanketed the base of the mountain and wild monkeys appeared during our ascent. At the highest lookout point the clouds rushed up and enveloped us, then disappeared to give us a beautiful blue and bright backdrop to the gorgeous mountains.

Huangshan
Huangshan

Our original plan had been to head directly to Inner Mongolia and do some hiking and camping, but I think we were both happy that we had made a completely out-of-the-way stop in Huangshan. Now we're headed north. We really don't know where we're going to go or how exactly we're going to get there, but that's all part of the adventure!

Soundtrack: Me & Bobby McGee (Janis Joplin)
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Off To The Races

Giant Panda
Giant Panda

Curled around the densest part of Hong Kong city is a row of mountains topped with a walking trail called "The Dragon's Back". I mounted the dragon just before sunset and walked his entire spine without seeing a person. Only beaches and buildings. Then it was back to the center. Back to where my time in Hong Kong began and where most of it was spent: the horse track. Rather than running around in the middle I watched from the bleachers with hundreds of other people as horses galloped around the ring. Hardened gamblers, foreign tourists and prowling singles constituted a majority of the main attraction. I'd tell you the tale of my high-roller bets but it would just be a tale; I don't care for gambling.

When I entered the race track I was already a bit stressed out about my high-risk gamble that China would give me another visa and I'd be able to meet my friend who was flying into Beijing in less than two weeks. Luckily my bet paid off, so I waisted no time entering China as I knew I wouldn't have long to explore on my way to the countries capitol. My plan was to cross the border into the mainland and then take a train to the closest transport hub and overnight it to Chengdu. My train from the border was running twenty minutes late, so rather than having thirty minutes to make my connecting train, I'd have ten. I explained my situation to the conductor and he said to see him before we pulled into the station and he'd take care of things.

The Dragon's Back with Hong Kong behind it
The Dragon's Back with Hong Kong behind it

When we arrived, the conductor escorted me off the train and spoke to an attendant at the station. The attendant spoke into his walkie-talkie and then directed me to platform seven. Running with my pack I headed in the direction the man pointed. The first turn was a dead end. Then I followed the crowd to the arrival hall. At the far end of the corridor was a large sign with the number seven. I ran to it. There was nothing there. A man saw me in a flurry and motioned to look at my ticket and when I showed it to him, quickly hurried me to follow him. I did. A minute and a half later he had led me down an alley and was asking for money. I told him to go fuck himself and ran back to the station. That was the first time on the trip that I'd sworn in anger or done something intentionally offensive to a local.

The temperature in the station was high and the humidity even higher. I had broken into a sweat and my face was beginning to get red. I ran to the closest gate; they told me to go to the gate at the other end. I ran to the other end of the station; they told me to go upstairs. I ran upstairs, tripping on the escalator and giving myself several evenly spaced gashes; they told me to go downstairs. I asked the attendant who was standing around if he could show me to the gate and he said: "No way". I was getting flustered. None of the workers at the station were helping—in fact they were hurting by giving me Asian directions (which constitutes waiving your hand like the tail of a fish in a random direction when you actually have no idea where something is)—and rather than trying to aide me the locals were taking out their phones to record my panic. I flipped the crowd with phones the finger and then ran to the downstairs ticket office.

Crowds at the Happy Valley Racecourse
Crowds at the Happy Valley Racecourse

My whole body was now a color past red and my shirt had turned from light gray to a dark shade of old-concrete-chinese-building. I raced to the front of the line and showed the woman my ticket. She shook her head and pointed to the information board. The clock read three minutes past my departure time. I went to the back of the line and stood like a circus lion—tame with all eyes on me, but dying inside to rampage. I got to the front of the line and bought a new ticket for a train which was to depart in five hours and take 42hrs to reach Chengdu instead of the 33hrs of my original ticket. Ten miles behind and with a broken leg, how would I ever catch up with Achilles?

What do you take on a train ride that long? I had brought with me a carrot, cucumber, large mango, small watermelon, two bananas, two cup noodles and a few crackers. The bananas and crackers were badly damaged after my scramble through the train station. Those in the know bring "cup noodles" and tea on long train rides as there's always a free boiling water dispenser. Cup noodles are similar to what we in America call "ramen noodles" but come in a bowl so all you have to do is add hot water.

Famous graffiti wall in Hong Kong
Famous graffiti wall in Hong Kong

Cars in Asian sleeper trains are broken into sections of six beds, arranged in facing triple bunks. The bottom two bunks are generally taken to be communal, and apart from sleeping hours that's where most of the hex sit. The middle bunks are usually considered the best as they have slightly more vertical space and require less climbing than the top bunks. I was assigned the top bunk for that journey. It was hard to tell if many of the people on my car recognized me from my dreadful experience in the train station five hours earlier, or if they were just gathered around to stare at me in the usual Asian fashion. The staff, having apparently nothing better to do, seemed to be leading the gawking. When I was bent over from my bed and reaching into my pack on the luggage rack opposite, they all began to laugh at me. I soliloquized: "Why don't you come to my country and we'll have a good laugh about it." One of the stewardesses replied: "I'm sorry" to which I retorted: "You should be". I don't think she actually understood either of my quips, responding instinctively because she knew she was wrong and could tell from my aspect that I was displeased. The crowd disbanded.

It was pretty early in the evening but I was exhausted as if I'd just been crying for the last several hours, so I decided to get some rest. No sooner than I'd fallen asleep than I was woken by a tap on the arm. It was a boy with two stewardesses. I guess he was the best English speaker they could find on the train. They wanted me to switch to a different bunk because they said I was too tall. And of course pay more money. I told them that since they're all the same length and the top bunk has enough vertical space for me to roll over, I'll just stay where I am. The boy's English skills were very minimal so it took me a while to convince them of my decision, but eventually they left me alone.

One of the things that I think made that journey longer than the train I had originally booked is that it made more stops. People were constantly getting on an off and eventually two thirds of my hex had changed. I was relieved by this. I figured I'd have a clean start with the new people. A man and his baby took the bottom bunk on the triplet across from mine. I wasn't happy to have a baby so close but the kid was fairly well behaved. Both the man and his son were filthy. Permanently stained cloths and unwashed foreheads. The man wore dress pants, as even the poorest Asian people often do. The boy wore trousers that were split about the center seem, as most of the babies in Asia do. Diapers and underwear are disfavored to, anywhere, and a rip around the crotch area makes that extra convenient. Throughout the entire day they spent on the train the boys eyes were extra shiny, almost as if he'd just been crying or was about to, though he only actually did for a brief period. The man looked simple, genuine and full of love.

Karst mountains outside the train
Karst mountains outside the train

I spent much of the journey listening to A Bend in The River by V. S. Naipaul and staring out the window as kids played in actual bends in rivers which meandered around topography so karst it looked as though China had been impaled by mountains. My hex-mates rotated again. Two ladies and a flaming gay guy joined the group. Upon seeing me the gay guy began flapping the collar of his shirt as if to ventilate himself so he didn't pass out. With clenched knees and spread feet he gave me a great big "Hello". He was extremely jubilant and spoke a little bit of English. He told me he lived in Chengdu and when I asked him what he did there he misinterpreted the question and responded: "Thirty-one but my friends say I look more like I'm sixteen." As he spoke he would often flush, put his hand up to his mouth and look away while he searched for a word. Sometimes he would tell me to "please wait a moment" while he looked up a translation on his phone, as if I had anywhere else I could go. He gave responses to my questions that were animated as if he was a cheerleader with pom-poms.

That's when the messages started coming in. A 42hr train ride wouldn't be so unbearable for me if they had an outlet for my laptop, since I've got an endless supply of things to do and I can tether the data service from my phone and have internet for the entire journey. Unfortunately the trains don't have outlets (except the maglev train from Shanghai to Beijing, but that's so fast it's hard to dissipate a full charge) so I would get messages on my phone but have no convenient way to answer them—working on my small touch screen is a lesson in patience. In some parts of the world it was starting to be my birthday and people that I had met were beginning to send me wishes. Before I arrived in Chengdu I had received over sixty messages. Many of them were just: "Happy Birthday" but a lot of them included things along the lines of: "I hope you're doing something dangerous, I'm sure you are". It recalled to mind an image a fellow world traveler had described to me while we were waiting in the-middle-of-nowhere Indonesia for a vehicle to come by. He said he once saw a graphic that showed an adventurer hanging off a cliff with a subtitle that read: "This is how my friends and family think I spend most of my time" and an adjoining graphic showing the same adventurer sitting on a bench waiting for a train and text that read: "How I actually spend most of my time". If only they knew, I thought.

Giant panda cub in a tree
Giant panda cub in a tree

The subject of my age came up amongst my train-mates and it came out that it was my birthday. They insisted on staying up with me until midnight at which point it would be my birthday in China, though not in America for another thirteen hours. When I woke up the gay guy handed me a bag of eggs and told me that it's Chinese tradition to eat red eggs on your birthday. I'm not a big fan of hard-boiled eggs but I ate one anyway. I'm not really sure where he came up with red eggs on that train in the middle of the night. He also gave me a packaged chicken foot which I told him I'd save 'till later. Then he told me the bad news: our train was running five hours longer then expected. It turned out to be running six. I spent most of my birthday trapped on a train. While things had gotten better, a smile had returned to my face and I was taking things in stride again, it began to feel like I was in jail being held against my will. I just wanted to get off. After nearly forty-six hours I finally did. A friend I had made during my previous stop in Chengdu was at the station waiting for me and I just wanted to collapse into her arms.

Partially because I was embarrassed about the stench I picked up during my run in the train station and then two straight days in close confinement without bathing, and partially because I would have crushed her, I refrained from collapsing into my friends arms. That night we went to the hostel where my friend worked and had a small celebration for me and an eleven year old Israeli girl who's family was staying there and who happens to have the same birthday as me. It was short and sweet and had many types of cake. The next day my friend and I went to the panda sanctuary in Chengdu where I saw several giant and red pandas, both of which were amazingly adorable. I had figured that the lesser pandas would be more cute than the giant pandas but I was pleasantly surprised. The giant pandas with their nonchalant lethargy were approaching otter cuteness. That night we went out with my gay friend from the train. We went cloths shopping for me—which I desperately needed to do as the cloths I had brought with me were disintegrating—and then went to dinner. I was certainly making more of my time in Chengdu than I had the last time. I thought about taking a train from Chengdu to Beijing but due to my rush and my previous train journey I decided that my birthday present to myself would be a plane ticket.

Soundtrack: William Tell Overture (Rossini)
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We Meet Again

Me and Rob at Lamma Island
Me and Rob at Lamma Island

It's not at all uncommon for me to see someone I met earlier on the trip several months and/or countries later, whether planned or unplanned—and the latter happens more than you'd think. It was sad to leave my friends in the aboriginal village behind, but a friend I made in Taipei was waiting for me in her home town of Tainan with a couple other friends. Famous for history and culture, Tainan is also well known for food and eating delicious food is what I spent most of my time there doing. The only time I wasn't eating was when we went to the beach and hung out in a cool bamboo surf shack. For dinner I finally got to try three cup chicken, a Taiwanese favorite of mine which I used to cook all the time back home. To be honest, I like my version better ;)

After trying the "must eats" in Tainan, I headed inland to the geographic center of Taiwan to a town called Puli, known for it's four W's: water, weather, women and wine. I only sampled the first two W's and didn't think they were anything special. I can say that all the women I saw in town had fair complexion, if no other outstanding attributes. My time was limited so after a day I returned to Taipei.

Dragon Boat races in Taipei
Dragon Boat races in Taipei

I was excited to return to Taipei so I could catch up with a guy who was in my hostel at the base of Mt. Fuji. As I was casually talking to him in Japan I happened to notice that he was holding a copy of Euclid's "Elements" in his hand; and not just any copy, but the exact translation that I specially requested when I was in high school and which my grandmother gave me for my eighteenth birthday. It's rare that I meet anyone as excited about math as I am—especially classical geometry—and I'd definitely been starving for intellectual conversation, which is exactly what I got when we met in Taipei 101.

This time my math professor friend—oh, I forgot to mention that he's a math professor—had to run, so I headed to the river to watch the annual Dragon Boat races. Rain put a little bit of a damper on the festivities but it didn't stop the rowers from rowing or me from eating. On my way back from the races a woman on the street asked me if I knew the way to the subway. I said: "Not really, but that's where I'm going and my phone knows the way so we can go together if you'd like." It turned out that she was from Japan and in Taiwan temporarily looking for work. Since neither of us had any plans for the evening we decided to hang out.

Chocolate covered penis waffle
Chocolate covered penis waffle

First we journeyed to a famous hot spring at the edge of town. Dim street lights hinted at hexxuses of steam singing off the river in no rush to assimilate with the hot and humid air. We entered a segregated and dingy bath house. The mens side featured two concrete pools lined with rusted non-metallic walls trimmed with sulfur yellow corrosion. Both pools were swelteringly hot and I couldn't stand more than three minutes in either. It felt good. On the way back to our neighborhood we stopped at a large and famous night market. My new friend helped me pick out a shirt, which I'm for once proud to say was made in Taiwan. While walking down a side alley we came upon a famous delicacy of the market: the penis waffle. For a reasonable price you can get a penis shaped waffle with your choice of toppings. We shared a chocolate waffle.

The next morning my new friend took me to a public garden near her house. It was one of the nicer gardens that I've seen on this whole trip and I wish I would have had more time to spend there. Unfortunately I had to rush to make a plane to Hong Kong where I was to play another frisbee tournament in two days time. The theme of the Hong Kong Hat was "Noah's Ark" and I spent a good portion of Friday shopping for a costume. While perusing animal costumes I was propositioned by two ladies to fake-strip at their friends hen party the next evening. They were willing to pay for my costume and give me chocolate baked goods, and I figured I could do both their event and the tournament party in a Mrs. Doubtfire-esque fashion, so I said yes. Unfortunately the bride got sick so they called it off. I went to the tournament party as a pair of calves.

My team at the Hong Kong Hat 2013
My team at the Hong Kong Hat 2013

I'd been told that many major Asian cities—Shanghai, Tokyo, Singapore—were "ultra modern" and "very international", but I didn't have that feeling when I visited them. I hadn't heard those things about Hong Kong and felt it was perhaps the most modern and international city I'd visited in Asia. The tournament was held in the center of the Happy Valley Racecourse in the middle of downtown Hong Kong. Like being atop the city wall in Xi'an, I felt totally removed from Hong Kong yet I was surrounded by skyscrapers backed by mountains. For 360° there are beautiful buildings set in front of mountains, or ocean dotted with islands and specked with boats. Over half of the tournament was played in rain, while the rest was fought out in the hot molasses air that's been creeping alongside me since Taiwan.

The day after the tournament I went to one of the islands with my friend Rob. If you're new here, Rob and I were on the same team at the Bangkok Tournament, then traveled in Cambodia twice and China once, as well as played in two other tournaments together. Rob had been to Hong Kong at least twice before and had already been to the island we visited. He waited until we were on the boat out there to mention that it's deceptively named Lamma Island instead of the far more accurate Giant Spider Island. Despite my arachnophobia I really enjoyed our hike across the island. I'm definitely gonna miss hanging out with Rob. We don't have any plans to meet again but knowing how things go I'm sure we will.

Soundtrack: Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown) - The Beatles
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Traditional in Taiwan

Breakfast in a peaceful Taiwanese village
Breakfast in a peaceful Taiwanese village

Taiwan has the fresh fruit, friendly nature and island feeling of Indonesia, the hot springs, fashion and manners of Japan, the infrastructure and good food of China, and the mountains and beaches of the Philippines. Unfortunately it also has the seismic activity of the ring of fire and the violent weather of the pacific islands.Four years ago a typhoon decimated many small villages. Last week a large earthquake rocked the western coast of Taiwan.

Having failed at hitchhiking, I took a train to Hualien where I visited the nearby Taroko Gorge. The marble mountains of Taroko are threaded with caves, each showing off a different geological feature. Some sparkled while others shimmered, some were white and others green, some had waterfalls coming out of nowhere and others felt like silk.

That evening the owners of my hostel took me and a few other guests to the night market. Night markets in Taiwan are some of the best places to get food in one of the most delicious countries on earth. Among the many things I sampled was "coffin bread", so named for the way the bread entombs it's savory filling. Throughout the evening I explained to the owners of the hostel how I like to travel and asked them for a suggestion of a place to go. They told me that the cleaning lady is an aboriginal from a village in the south, and recommended me to visit her village.

Waterfall cave at Taroko Gorge
Waterfall cave at Taroko Gorge

The next morning they made some phone calls and brought me to the train station where they helped me buy a ticket. They told me someone would pick me up when I got off the train and then said good bye. My fears of finding my ride amidst a frenzy of busy travelers was alleviated when I was the only person to alight at the garage of a stop which lounged on the beach at the foot of the mountain's jungles.

A short, heavy set, dark skinned woman soon arrived and ushered me into her car. She spoke very little English so I had to content myself on the little information I had learned from the owners of the hostel in Hualien regarding my future destination. They told me that the village where I was going had been destroyed by the typhoon four years ago and suggested that I may be able to help them plant trees, build structures or work with computers.

We arrived in the village in the late afternoon and the woman showed me to a bamboo house where I was to sleep. She showed me around the facilities of the building neighboring my abode and then bid me good night. I was left wondering and wanting. What am I doing here? Is there anything to see or do in this village? Does anyone speak English? Resolved to make the most of it however, I took a walk around and explored the tiny village which couldn't have been more then eight square blocks.

Mural on the side of someones house
Mural on the side of someones house

Two things stood out to me: the preponderance of murals and the abundance of running water. Many walls on both the city streets and peoples homes were decorated with beautifully painted murals. Running taps seemed to be everywhere. In gardens, alongside the road, besides peoples houses. It seemed as though there was water coming from everywhere I looked and no source of the fluid had any means of making it stop.

Finding nothing to do and receiving interesting stairs from the locals, I went back to my hut and hunkered down for the night. It was nice of them to give me my own traditional house, but it was a little funny considering that everyone else in the village lived in more modern, though in no way immodest or ostentatious, concrete walled dwellings. I slept poorly and was awoken early by the voices of men working outside my building. Three men and a lad of 18 were fastening tarps above bamboo scaffolding in preparation for a market which was to take place outside my hut the following day. I helped the men, using my significant height advantage to fasten metal ties overhead without the aide of a ladder.

After about an hour, the job was complete and we went to sit in the shade and refresh ourselves with paolyta, a sweet local alcoholic beverage which we mixed with canned milk. After a sufficiently long rest the woman who had brought me to the village came to beckon us back to work. A whole pallet of rice needed to be moved into the storehouse and we quickly accomplished the task. Having apparently completed all the work for the day the men invited me to come drink and sing karaoke.

Market setup crew
Market setup crew

The woman who had the karaoke machine at her house wasn't home when we arrived so the men called her and she quickly came back. A thick book was placed in front of me with a small section devoted to random old English songs. Unfortunately the machine didn't have any of the English songs so the men took turns singing songs in Chinese. Around noon the proprietor of the machine showed up and told us that we had to stop because people were trying to sleep.

I should have mentioned that the 18 year old guy spoke some English and that was primarily how I was getting by. After we got cut off from karaoke, he asked if I wanted to go swimming in the jungle and of course I said yes. We hopped on his scooter and drove down a path leading up into the mountains. It was like the Singapore zingiberales exhibit. Lining the path were birds of paradise, lobster claws, gingers andJESUSCHRISTLOOKATTHESIZEOFTHATSPIDER! It was a jungle to be sure.

After a refreshing dip in a spring fed mountain stream we returned to the village and ate some dinner. Following the meal we went to the towns recreation center which consisted of a large hanger with a full basketball court inside. We played some half-court bball with some boys from the village. The whole time we were playing, three young boys danced around center court eagerly trying to swat down a massive bug that was attracted to the lights. They succeeded on many occasions, after which they would toss the bug back into the air. I tried to get them to hold onto it long enough for me to get a look but they didn't seem to understand what I was asking and instead brought me a shoe box full of live rhinoceros beetles.

One of many large spiders in the village
One of many large spiders in the village

When the games were over I went to go sit on the sidelines, at which point my young friend pointed to the disc that was protruding from my satchel. I took it out and motioned what it was used for. He seemed intrigued but uninterested in trying it. The other boys however, were very interested to give it a go. Once again we returned to the basketball court, but this time with a disc instead of a ball. I'm always impressed by how naturally some of these kids seem to be able to throw a frisbee. One of the boys that was on my basketball team was a pro at it.

Once everyone had had their fill, my 18 year old friend brought me back to his house so that I could shower before bed. The shower was like the type I used in more remote places in Indonesia, which is to say a bucket which you scoop water out of a basin with. This basin was constantly overflowing due to the stream of water running into it which my friend said was coming from the mountains. Showering with me that evening was a fair sized praying mantis which was busy cleaning its legs as I cleaned mine.

The next morning the market which I had helped set up for the previous day, took place outside my hut. There was traditional food, traditional crafts and traditional dances. The dances were segregated by gender and led by the village mayor, a woman whom I had seen leading dance practice in the recreation center the evening prior. During the womens dances the town gay guy joined in and no one seemed to notice. When the dances were over I was perusing the craft-work when I heard a voice from behind me ask something like: "Can I assist you?". It always catches me off guard when I hear such good English in a place where I wasn't expecting to hear any English at all. I turned around and saw a tall, comparatively light skinned, thin lady. She was an odd sight in the village since everyone was dark, short, and most of the men were overweight.

Traditional aboroginal mens dance
Traditional aboriginal mens dance

She was also a man. It turned out that that village had at least one lesbian, gay guy, transvestite and post-op transsexual, all of which are completely accepted and treated as an equal member of their preferred gender. It was a very refreshing thing for me to witness, as the places in Asia where I had been most recently were very homophobic. I hung close around the ladyboy for the rest of my time in the village, at least partially because she spoke English so well. Before the market closed she preformed a more modern dance. It was interesting to see a man dressed like a woman dressed like a man dancing like a woman.

When the market was over, all the young people went to the swimming hole in the jungle and invited me to join them. There was a 4 meter/12 foot waterfall which me and a couple other boys jumped off of. After a couple hours of swimming, bathing and playing tag, we got out of the water and ate some soup which a girl had been cooking over a fire on the shore. Right as we were finishing the soup, two more kids showed up with several bags of meat. Apparently they had arranged a special BBQ just for me. As the meat cooked we watched multiple groups of monkeys jump through the trees immediately on the opposite side of the river from us.

The BBQ was just a snack and when the sun went down we returned to the village where they had prepared a traditional dinner for me. It was a relatively bland rice porridge but they had fish and spicy tofu to add to it. After dinner we all sat around drinking—first beer, then wine, then beer mixed with wine, then beer mixed with paolyta, then some awful rice wine. I also tried betel nut, which I figured it was high time I try. Eventually an acoustic guitar was produced and the villagers sang songs in Chinese or their aboriginal language, and hummed the occasional American pop song which they would always invite me to sing.

Me jumping off the waterfall
Me jumping off the waterfall

The next morning it was time for me to leave and my 18 year old friend woke up early and gave me a ride to the train station. Though I had only spent a few days in the village I felt sad to leave. Everyone had been so incredibly nice to me. Very few of the people in the village had any money, partially owing to the fact that there were no jobs. While walking under the stars with the ladyboy, she told me how half the village had been washed away in just a couple hours and how since then everyone had been working together to rebuild it. Before I left, my young friends mother—who said I was the first American she'd ever seen—gave me a charm. I left my friend with the final frisbee which I had brought from home.

I'm so glad that I had that experience in the aboriginal village in Taiwan. It was great to see how they live compared to the rest of the Taiwanese population. It was also interesting to juxtapose them with other indigenous people in the area, as well as the indigenous people back home. It's amazing how similar they all are and how many of the same problems they're all facing, especially having to do with the modern societies around them. Before I left, everyone asked me when I'd be back and I told them I didn't know, but I can say for sure that I'd love to return some time in my life.

It's rare that I know exactly where I'm going much before I get there, but it just so happens that I have the next month or so planned out. In a couple days I fly to Hong Kong where I'm playing in another frisbee tournament and hopefully getting a new Chinese visa. Then I'll be making my way across the mainland to Beijing to meet up with a friend at the end of June. We'll be traveling in Inner Mongolia and/or Mongolia itself and then I'll be heading into Mongolia for an indefinite amount of time. I'm telling you all of this because if you happen to have any advice for me or plan to be traveling in the area and want to meet up, I'd love to know about it.

Soundtrack: Waka Waka (Esto Es Africa) - Shakira
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Life In The City, Death In The Forest

Tokyo intersection
Tokyo intersection

Like most major cities, Tokyo never sleeps, but it's metro system takes a nap from midnight to a little after five in the morning. This means that if you want to go out and you're too far to walk home and don't have $50 laying around to spend on a cab back, you've got two options: turn in early or stay out until the first train runs. Since Oliver—a Belgian guy I met in my hostel—and I had already missed the last train back while taking in the sights (read: high heels and short skirts) in Tokyo's busiest night district, we decided to go to one of the cities most famous clubs. No cover and $3 for all drinks all night so long as you had a drink in your hand at all times. Oliver and I were doing a good job of nursing drinks but the Boston University mens and womens Lacrosse teams that were in the bar and were comprised entirely out of people not old enough to drink in the United States, were not. When some girls we were dancing with suggested that we go to a different club, we gladly followed.

Less smoky, more mature, and full of female Russian fashion models, that club was a better fit. One of the girls we had followed to the club got a bit drunk and they took an Irish exit, but by that time I was well caught up in the music and dancing and hardly noticed. Around two of the French girls we were dancing with took an apropos French leave, and the really cute Japanese girls we were dancing with disappeared. We walked back to the first club to collect our things and then headed for the subway. A very large bowl of noodles in a window caught Oliver's eye and we were still a bit early for the first train so we stopped in for a bite. After ordering the largest bowl of udon I've ever seen and likely ever will see, I took a moment to survey the restaurant. Who should be seated directly next to us but the cute Japanese girls from the club.

Me and one of the Japanese girls in the restaurant
Me and one of the Japanese girls in the restaurant

The sun came up, Oliver finished his udon and we finally made it to the subway. We had missed the first train, which is usually crowded with other people in similar situations, and so too, apparently, had the French girls who were trying to buy tickets when we arrived. We made it back to our hostel around in the morning and had a strict (this is Japan we're talking here) check out time of . After an insufficiently short amount of sleep we both headed to Tokyo's "Freak Street" to gawk at the latest victims of Japans unusual fashion culture. Unfortunately the freaks weren't out at so I left Oliver and went to Mt. Fuji to take in a different grotesque sight.

I arrived at the city at the base of Mt. Fuji too late to do anything—like climb the mountain—so I decided to stay for the night. With little time left before my flight out of Japan I had to make a choice the : climb Mt. Fuji or visit Aokigahara, a forest famous for over a hundred Japanese people killing themselves there each year. I had already prepared my usual survival day pack including a knife, lighter, compass + mirror, rope, headlamp, water, snacks and cell phone. I figured it would be appropriate in either location, though the compass, mirror and cellphone are all ineffectual in the forest where thick tree cover and magnetic anomalies caused by the ferromagnetic rock from the volcano render them relatively useless.

Mt. Fuji
Mt. Fuji

I can see why Aokigahara is called "The perfect place to die"; the forest is beautiful, especially when you go off the hiking trail, which is what you need to do to find the bodies... Luckily once you go in a ways you can meet up with a long piece of white tape which someone has strung out so you can find your way back (if you're so inclined). I followed the white tape to the end, some 45 minutes into the thick, and didn't see much other than some cloths and random accessories. I would have liked to explore the forest more but I was out of time and had to haul ass to Osaka so I could spend a little time exploring that city before my flight to Taiwan.

Before we parted ways Oliver told me about a guy in Osaka that I should meet up with if I get the chance. I sent him a message and he met me at the subway station with a German guy that was crashing at his place. We walked back to his house, I put down my pack and no sooner than it hit the floor than he said: "Alright, are you ready to go?". "Ummm, yes?" And with that all three of us were off to an onsen. We enjoyed the spa then grabbed some dinner and immediately went to a bar. Different city, same situation: no more public transport. Luckily we were only a 20 minute walk away from home so the German guy and I headed back around four in the morning while our host stayed out and partied.

Takoyaki, traditional Osaka octopus balls
Takoyaki, traditional Osaka octopus balls

The lack of trains between midnight and 6am was really starting to bother me. I realized that if I was going to make my flight the next morning I'd have to be at the airport no later than 6am and it was over an hour and a half away from my hosts house. I resolved to leave at 10pm and sleep in the airport. All was going well with my plan until I reached my final transfer and they told me that there were no more trains to the airport that night. I took a train as far in that direction as I could. I arrived at my stop, about nine kilometers from the airport, just before midnight. The air was refreshing and I had already passed the wall of exhaustion so I decided to walk.

The Osaka Kansai airport rests on an island four kilometers off shore, connected to the land by a very long bridge. All was peaceful when I entered the bridge around one in the morning. I was making good progress on an audio book and a cool breeze was cooing the ocean to sleep. About two thirds of the way across the bridge I saw flashing lights on the ground in front of me and turned around to see a very large maintenance type vehicle pulled up behind me. I shut off my iPod, put down my pack and two Japanese highway patrolmen dressed in full rescue gear including reflective jump suits, helmets and harnesses, got out to talk to me. By talk I suppose I mean gesture since they didn't speak any English. I tried to explain my situation to one of the men—which seemed pretty obvious (where else would I be going?)—while the other man went back to the truck to retrieve a policeman's Japanese-to-English phrasebook. He started pointing to phrases, many of which made little sense or seemed fairly irrelevant. Still, I did my best to respond. Phrasebook: "You get with policeman take you". Ummm, ok. Phrasebook: "Please wait in safe place". I suppose the wide shoulder of this three-lane uninhabited bridge is about as good a place as any, not that I had any other options.

Bridge to Kansai airport
Bridge to Kansai airport

Shortly I saw more flashing lights come over the arch of the bridge. As I waited for vehicle to arrive the men started setting up flashing cones, as if the reflective truck with spinning lights wasn't visible enough to all the people that weren't driving over the bridge at . The police cruiser that pulled up had two more men and I got to try to explain my situation all over again to someone who doesn't speak English. I was so distracted that I didn't notice when the second cop car got there. That's when they put me in the back seat of the first cruiser. This may come as a surprise to many of you, but that was the first time I had ridden in the back of a cop car.

I had given my passport to the highway patrolman and it had since been passed around to most of the officers and my information written on many sheets of paper. An officer got in the car with me and began writing down my information again: "Bee-oh.... DANGER!!! Bee-oh danger?" It's not often that I get to legitimately use: "Danger's my middle name". I had been doing a good job of heading the lawyer from Nara's advice: "If you get into trouble, smile" and the officers all seemed to be taking it well and saw the humor in the situation too. All the officers except a slightly more rotund policeman that had arrived in the second car and seemed to be wearing two bullet proof vests and took out his flashlight light when questioning me. He was taking things seriously and I was having a hard time restraining myself from laughing, even with him. He got in the car and explained that the latest officer on the scene was a Sargent and that I needed to sign a statement saying I was really sorry. He handed me a sheet of paper with entirely Japanese writing and showed me where to sign. After signing he busted out some ink and I had to make a fingerprint impression on the paper.

He started the car and we took off in the only direction we could, toward the airport. As we were coming in he said: "You give me $3. Service" What? He repeated himself: "You give me $3. Service". "No" I replied. In any other Asian country I would have paid a policeman that solicited me, but that was Japan, things don't work like that there. Also, the ridiculously small amount of money he was asking for didn't seem right. Then he asked for $5 for each him and his partner, but again I refused. He continued questioning me: "What's your job?" I told him web developer. I usually tell people I don't have a home or job, but when dealing with officials that don't speak much English I've found it's easier to just give them my old information. He didn't understand web developer but eventually I was able to explain it to him. "Are you a cyber terrorist?" I told him I wasn't. They asked me where I was going and on what airline, and I told them. Then we pulled up to the terminal and they motioned for me to get out. Unlike in America, in Japanese cop cars the doors open from the inside and there's no divider between you and the officers. I got out and they escorted me into the terminal. They showed me a couple places I could sleep and asked which one I'd prefer. I motioned toward one and we walked over to it. I put down my pack and they sat down and questioned me some more. The strict officer motioned that he'd like to go through my pack so I opened it up. Like many people before him he quickly realized it would be an overwhelming effort and gave up. "Only where?" He said to me. I motioned that I didn't understand. He pointed to his cloths: "Only wear?". Oh, I get it. "Yeah, only wear." He hadn't actually seen any cloths in my pack and there were tons of things in there I'm sure I shouldn't have, but why argue?

Taipei skyline, ruled by Taipei tower
Taipei skyline, ruled by Taipei tower

Suffice to say I didn't get much sleep that night. The morning came and my flight to Taiwan went off without a hitch. Unfortunately there's no rest for the weary. I had arranged to stay with a girl from CouchSurfing but she didn't get off work until so I spent the day exploring the city, or more precisely it's delicious cuisine. At I met up with a different woman from CS and we shared some more Taiwanese specialties and talked about Taiwan and such. I told her where I was going next and mentioned that I might try hitchhiking there. It was the second time on my entire trip when I told someone I was going to hitchhike and they said that it was a good idea. She even went so far as to email me an article about someone having a great time hitchhiking across Taiwan (unfortunately it was in Chinese). She said the cops will even help make sure your sign is correct.

The next day I journeyed through the humid heat to the highway at the edge of town leading to my next destination. I was just beginning to make my sign while when a police car pulled up. Oh good, I thought, my traditional Chinese isn't so good, maybe they can make sure it's correct. I was quite surprised when the officer shook his head at me. "Freeway. No." He also didn't really speak English. I explained to him what I was trying to do and he repeated: "Freeway. No." "Ok" I told him. He took my passport and motioned for me to get in the back of the cruiser. Wow, picked up in two different countries in the span of two days. We took off and quickly made a u-turn and headed back into town. We pulled up under a bridge and he motioned for me to get out. Their cars also open from the inside. I got out and he got out with me. He handed me my passport and then motioned toward some stairs leading up to the subway. I motioned acknowledgement and he started toward the stairs. I followed him. He helped me buy a ticket back to Taipei main station, not that I really needed any help.

I think in the situation in Japan and in Taipei the officers thought I didn't know what I was doing and was somehow lost and confused. In both cases I was awfully far out of town and well on my way to my destination to be lost. Oh well, at least they were all helpful. I should probably try to avoid getting picked up by the police for a while though, it may make it hard for me to get into other countries...

Soundtrack: In The Middle (They Might Be Giants)
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The Japanese Experience

Fushimi Inari gates
Fushimi Inari gates

Inconspicuous consumption

There's a dearth of trash cans in Japan because they don't openly consume things—even cigarettes which most of the men seem to smoke. Why they don't consume things in public seems to be a bit of a mystery. The best answers that I've received is that that's what they're taught in school and that it's out of politeness because not all people may be able to afford whatever it is that they're consuming. Regardless of the reason it seems to be well ingrained in the culture and everyone follows the rules. Always.

If anything it might be said that I'm after an authentic local experience wherever I go, so I've passed up no opportunity to try any of the things that Japan is famous for. On one day I went to an onsen which is a lot like a jjimjilbang only not as nice and you can't sleep there, and later in the night went to a rotating sushi restaurant where a conveyor belt of sushi eels through the restaurant and you simply grab whatever you want and get charged based on your stack of plates.

Rotating sushi restaurant
Rotating sushi restaurant

Another day I went to a city most famous for their matcha (powdered green tea) and tried a meta-dessert which had green tea ice cream, green tea jelly, green tea rice cakes and a few other components. That evening I went with a group of friends to a restaurant called Sweets Paradise which for about $15 US allows you to eat as many sweets as you want for 70 minutes. The chocolate fountain was my undoing and I left with a stomach ache, as did most of my dinner-mates.

Matcha dessert
Matcha dessert

Don't stop believing

Some of my best ideas come when I'm drinking. So do some of my worst. I suppose it's like that for most people. For me, Japan had been let down after let down. Each city boasted promise and greeted me with disappointment. I arrived in Nara with high hopes of seeing nature, but what I found was crowded, domesticated, paved boring temples. That evening I went out for dinner with a French guy from my hostel. Over dinner we had a few beers and then went to a bar. That's when it hit me: maybe I'm going about Japan all wrong. I've been getting the classic Japanese experience but not the real Japanese experience.

I had been chatting at the bar with a Japanese prosecution lawyer and I told him my situation and asked him to write the name of a place in Japanese that he thinks I should go to. A real Japanese place where I'll get to experience the real Japan. He thought about it for a long time. He went outside to have a smoke. When he came back he wrote something on the back of a business card and said: "You may have the best time here... if you don't die. Please don't die." He told me it's the poorest place in Japan but may have the nicest people. He motioned that I shouldn't do needle drugs when I'm there and I motioned back that that wouldn't be an issue. "Please don't die" he kept saying. "I'm tough" I told him. "If you get into trouble" he said, "Smile".

The next morning I woke up hungover but resolved to make it to whatever place the man had written. I packed my things and walked to the train station. I showed the people at the ticket gate my sheet of paper and they laughed and smiled, and then when they realized that I actually wanted to go there, their smile turned into a nervous grimace. "No go. Accident" the woman said. "I'll be ok" I replied. She motioned to the train schedule board and I saw there was a message in red. "Train accident. No go." Oooh, there was an accident with the train and it's not running there. I get it.

Kinkaku-ji
Kinkaku-ji

What now? There were some other places in Japan that I had heard were nice but I couldn't take another let down. I went to the tourist information center to use their free wifi. I could go to Tokyo, I thought. No, that's just what they'll be expecting me to do. Plus I didn't know if I could handle a city like that with my current hangover. I need to get lost. I walked up to the woman at the counter and asked her to teach me a little Japanese. I learned three words: Mountain, North and Anywhere. I had considered hitching with an "anywhere" sign again, but apparently there's no kanji for that.

So, back to the train station I went. There are five platforms at the Nara station. The first platform was for the train that isn't running, the next two platforms went back to Kyoto, the fourth one went to Osaka and the fifth one was headed somewhere I'd never heard of. I got on the train that pulled into the fifth platform. After four stops I was back in Nara. Fine, I'll go to Osaka. I can go anywhere from Osaka.

When I arrived in Osaka I showed a ticket taker the place I was trying to go and she informed me that it was just on the other side of Osaka. In half an hour I was there. It was the first Japanese city where I'd seen homeless people. Things were a little more dirty and covered in graffiti than elsewhere in Japan, but on the whole it wasn't nearly as run down or shady as I was expecting. The lawyer from the bar had written me a message on the back of another card, which I was supposed to show to people once I arrived in the city. I tried showing it to some people and I got a variety of responses but nothing that turned eventful.

On a side alley I found a classic sushi restaurant and decided to stop for a bite. I ducked under the cloth banner hanging over the door, set down my pack and grabbed a seat at the bar. While waiting for my sashimi a woman sitting next to me asked where I was from in broken English. I told her and then showed her my sheet of paper. She shook my hand. Shortly afterward her boyfriend came back from the bathroom and she said something to him in Japanese and he got really excited. Unfortunately neither of them spoke much English so we had to communicate mostly in gestures. I took out my notebook to write something and the couple noticed my Japanese lesson from earlier that day: north, mountains and anywhere. They put it all together—the message the lawyer had written, the few words I learned: I was looking for the authentic Japanese experience and I didn't care where it took me.

The man took my journal and a pen and drew a nice map of Japan and then circled a place up north that I should go to. He wrote down the name as well. I told them that I would go there. He asked when. I said I would go that evening. Then they got even more excited. That's where they were from and further they were going back that evening! He asked if I wanted to go with them and of course I said yes. After lunch we went to the train station and I reserved a ticket on their train back home. We had about two hours to kill so we went to a nearby wine bar and sampled a selection of nice wines from around the world.

After a three hour train ride we were in a city called Kanazawa. The first thing we did was meet up with one of the mans co-workers—an Italian guy my age who spoke English—and then go out for a very nice traditional Japanese dinner. When the over $140 bill came the couple quickly snatched it up. The mans co-worker told me not to argue. After dinner they took me back to the mans house and he introduced me to his mother. His father, he told me, was the chief of police and asleep at the moment. Then he showed me to my private room where a bed was made and waiting for me.

Kenroku-en Garden
Kenroku-en Garden

The next morning the man cooked me a large breakfast and then we set off to see the city. First we went to an old neighborhood where all the samurai used to live and the buildings have remained largely intact. Then we went to the nicest garden I've seen in Japan and almost anywhere on earth. Afterward we met back up with his co-worker and toured the "ninja temple" which was equipped with many secret staircases, pit traps, trick doors and other awesome safety features. The man had to work so he left me in the care of his co-worker who is currently studying at the university in Kanazawa and said I could sleep in his dorm.

Juxtaposed with the Chinese dorm I stayed at in Tianjin, the Japanese one was much nicer. That evening the Italian guy had a study group so his roommate took me to a very nice onsen, out to his favorite restaurant and then we toured the city on bicycles. It was a perfect night with unnoticeably clean, crisp air.

This was the Japanese experience that I'd been looking for. I got to see how modern Japanese people live, try a host of traditional food and saw a bunch of beautiful sights along the way. I was sitting at a restaurant in the poorest part of Japan and just 30 minutes later was sampling wine with new friends. As I've learned, the best things happen when you don't have a plan and you're open to whatever comes your way.


He loves me not

Why doesn't he love me? Everyone else does?
I'm the lead singer of one of the most popular rock bands on earth.
I don't see why it should bother me, plenty of other people love me.
But I can tell that he wants to love me.
He came to my show. We had good weather and a good venue.
Was he put off by the expensive ticket price? No, I don't think so.
I let him get close to me, even touch me.
He loves other singers in other bands.
Maybe my facade fascinates from afar but when he got close he realized that I'm only a hologram.
Maybe if he knew the person deep down inside he'd love me.

Soundtrack: In The Mood (Glenn Miller)
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Take A Bow

Floating gate at Miyajima
Floating gate at Miyajima

Insert some coins, hit a button, retrieve your purchase. Even the doors open automatically. Life is moving by too fast to take in, just look forward in the suffocating silence that chokes the whole country of Japan. No human interaction necessary; like the vending machines that line the alleys.

Ride your bike down the sidewalk but don't even think of jaywalking; no one else does. A bomb exploded right over where I'm standing. Outlets and expression are different here. Too bad my adapter back to American is broken and so much about me has changed. Art week means all the exhibits are free. Sexual frustration is palpable. It's ok to openly ogle porn bought in the convenience stores that define the corners like drug stores in Cambodia, but not to overtly observe the street-walker-barbies in their short skirts, high heels and frilly socks.

Ritsurin Garden
Ritsurin Garden

"So, you've been in Asia for almost 9 months. I'm sure this is the question everyone wants to ask, but, do you have the Yellow Fever?" "I should hope not, I've been vaccinated against it." "That's not what I meant." "Oh. I think I may be vaccinated against that too, at least I don't think I've contracted it any of the times I've been bitten."

If there's no trash cans does that mean there's no trash? Rubbish. Slide into your capsule and forget about it. You have to wake up early to storm the castle. Did you know Japan had castles? Don't worry, there's no doors on the gates heres. Crisp bills, wheelchair accessible, pedestrian inconvenient and complicated for tourists. Their best gardens can't compete with my free one back home.

So here I am, standing in front of the electronics store waiting for the door to automatically open.


Oh, I have to push it?

Soundtrack: One (Three Dog Night)
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Play Hard

What I got when I ordered the Vegetable Table
What I got when I ordered the Vegetable Table

This is going to hurt. Oh god. Where did this scar on my leg come from? How did I get to this jjimjilbang? How many bottles of soju did we drink last night?

I'm in some sort of himilayian rock salt room. I reach for my sady water. Wouter: where are you? this is dangerous. I'm not supposed to sleep here. I should escape instead of typing this. I'm in a new sauna now. This one is hot. Even the florr is hot. The last oen was't this hot. This must be bad for my laptop. where is wouter. Evertything burns when I tough it. Even ght floor burns. I hit seven but the floor took me to five. Why is there a floor that I can't get to in my own elevator?

Busan Bids at Dadaepo Beach
Busan Bids at Dadaepo Beach

I remember sitting in a small restaurant having dinner with a woman I met in Cambodia, when a guy I met in Chengdu knocked on the window. This sort of an occurance is not out of the ordinary for me. I had recently met several people from my home city of Madison Wisconsin at a Korean ultimate tournament, including one woman who I'd actually hung out with about a year before I left.

The setting for the tournament was a beach in Busan, one of Korea's premier oceanic destinations. Unlike the tournament in Tianjin where 85% or so of the people were Chinese, Busan Bids was predominantly American with a few other westerners peppered in. Despite my team coming in dead last I think the rosters were the most balanced out of any tournament or league of this format that I've ever been a part of.

Nearly the entire time that I was in Korea I was shown tremendous generosity and hospitality by the ultimate frisbee community. Several people let me stay at their house even when there wasn't room for me. I probably could have gotten a ride from Seoul to Busan with an ultimate player but I was interested hitchhiking so I took the worst subway system that I've ridden in Asia to the best spot I've ever tried to hitch a ride. In somewhere around seven minutes a trucker on his way to Busan pulled over to pick me up. He didn't speak much English but we were able to communicate and I had him drop me off at a town just north of Busan called Gyeongju.

Gyeongju to take
Gyeongju to take

Gyeongju is one of those old towns with lots of cultural sights to visit. Unfortunately it was misting the whole time I was there so I had to go around by bus instead of bike. Fortunately there's some really nice people from the ultimate community who live there and took me out for a delicious dinner and gave me a ride to the tournament—no cardboard sign necessary.

Did I make the most of my time in Korea? I dunno, maybe. I didn't go everywhere but I did a lot. I'm still trying to process and take in the Korean culture. There's so many weird contradictions and things are very different than the rest of Asia. One thing's for sure and that's that I won't mind being in a country where they don't sell soju.

Soundtrack: Die Young (Ke$ha)
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No Pun Intended

Part of the Great Wall of China
Part of the Great Wall of China

Most of the locals I've met on this trip, especially those in Beijing and Seoul, have told me that I've been really lucky with the weather. Had I been in either place just a week earlier I would have gotten cold and clouds rather than charming temperatures and fair skies. On one of my remaining days in China I went to the Great Wall—not to be confused with China's Great Firewall named Golden Shield which I'll be writing about after I'm certain I'm not going back to China for a while—and apparently missed Tom Cruise who I'm guessing was there a day early staking out a seat for the David Gueta concert. The wall itself was more underwhelming than disappointing since I didn't have very high hopes for it in the first place. The most exciting part of my great wall excursion was the dash from the train station across the wet platform amidst a torrent of Chinese tourists to the unassigned and insufficient seating of the train.

After using every single one of the 30 days China had allowed me to be in their country, I took a plane to Seoul Korea. My first three days in South Korea seem like a drunken blur. I suppose I did drink a lot now that I think about it. On the first day I rushed around to almost all of Seoul's main tourist attractions which were predominantly old temples landscaped with overflowing azaleas of white, lavender and rouge. The lilacs, bleeding hearts, apples and a few cherries were also in bloom all over Seoul—at least in the rare patches where there isn't concrete—and they created both an ocularly and olfactorily pleasing juxtaposition to the tall white skyscrapers and underdeveloped sewer system of the city.

Carved stones at Gyeongbokhung temple
Carved stones at Gyeongbokhung temple

That evening while waiting for a lantern parade to begin I met a group of Canadian and American expatriates who teach English in Seoul. They invited me to join their group and we watched the parade together. About two and a half hours into it I really needed to pee but I didn't want to leave because I kept expecting something really cool to happen. Eventually I couldn't hold it any longer and said that I was going to the subway—where there are always bathrooms—and a few people from the group decided to join me. One of the Canadian guys seemed particularly excited. One the way back to the group I discovered that the Canadian guy was excited because he thought we were going to Subway the restaurant, so we made a quick stop on our return. Right as everyone was in the midst of ordering subs we heard a super loud roar come from outside. I jumped, and one of the girls yelled and pointed outside. I rushed out to see a huge, fire-breathing dragon lantern snake off down the street. I had almost completely missed it!

After the parade I went out for dinner and drinks with my new friends. I learned a whole new set of cultural drinking etiquette and got to have a few Korean specialties which I had yet to try. On just my first day I had probably sampled half of the traditional Korean cuisine that I had been hoping to get. I find Korean food to be the spiciest of all the countries I've been to so far, and spicy with a good flavor. Their main hot sauce resembles Sriracha (cock/rooster sauce) in both taste and appearance. We finished the evening with lots more drinking and a private karaoke room where I sang The Edge Of Glory (Lady Gaga), Build Me Up Buttercup (The Foundations) and I'm Yours (Jason Mraz). Nearly all of the karaoke rooms I've been in show completely random music videos during each song. On that particular evening the videos seemed to be even less fitting than in any of the rooms in the past. While an American girl sang Sweet Caroline, the TV screen showed a bunch of soldiers getting blown up or otherwise decapitated. An interesting scene to be sure.

Dragon lantern (not the one that blew fire)
Dragon lantern (not the one that blew fire)

The next day I met up with my new friends again and we went "urban exploring" which involves walking around town and drinking. Both drinking and being drunk in public is totally legal in South Korea and seeing guys in business suits wasted at 4pm and stumbling around the streets is quite commonplace. I've heard that both the #1 and #3 selling alcohols (by case) in the world are the two main Korean drinks: Soju, which is an awful distilled alcohol similar to vodka, and Makgeolli, which is like unfiltered sake. The parks in South Korea are the best I've seen in Asia. Most of them have free exercise equipment, soccer fields, ponds and badminton courts, and one of them had an 800m track, a speed skating rink, a huge rock climbing wall and a skate park.

That evening I spent the night at a jjimjilbang, which was another interesting experience. Jjimjilbangs are traditional Korean spa's where for a relatively small amount of money—surprisingly small given how expensive everything else is in Korea—you can spend the night in a huge complex with two special floors for each gender where you go completely nude and have access to fancy showers, five hot tubs of various temperatures, a cold bath, a steam room and a rock salt sauna, as well as a common floor with tons of other "rooms" including several crawl-in "kilns", pyramids and things that seemed like human sized tajines. The whole area, including the common and segregated floors, are open for sleeping and I saw Koreans passed out everywhere as if they had all been turned to kittens that were busy playing all day and then just curled up wherever they were when they got tired, as kittens are wont to do. I slept in the mens sleeping dorm which seemed like a bit more comfortable location than the stone floor in the well lit common area, but to each their own.

Seoul as seen from Namsan Tower
Seoul as seen from Namsan Tower

Korea seems to be more different than any of the other countries I've been to so far. Things are clean despite there being less trash cans than in China. Side dishes (banchan) are the main attractions of their cuisine which seems to be surprisingly unhealthy. The men are really effeminate and fashion is definitely important, not that it wasn't in Vietnam or China. I feel like I'm the worst dressed person in the whole country, especially when I'm doing any kind of hiking. Koreans will spend as much as $10,000 USD on hiking equipment because no hike it too light to be decked out in top-of-the-line gear, and if they're gonna have a snack at the top they'll definitely need at least five side dishes... and a bottle or two of makgeolli.

There, a whole article without making a pun about the capitol of South Korea.

Soundtrack: (Nothing but) Flowers (Talking Heads)
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Tight and Bright

Ghost Street in Beijing
Ghost Street in Beijing

"These flower pepper. You don't eat these. You eat these everything else tastes like burning" said our waitress in China town Chicago, pointing to the little black beads in the La La La Chicken that my family had ordered. Of course I had to try one and she was right, everything else tasted like burning afterward. Well, maybe not burning so much as like flower pepper.

Also known as the Sichuan pepper, this common Chinese ingredient is not closely related to black pepper or chili peppers and its chemical effects come from a different molecule entirely. After my first run-in with the flower pepper back home I'd yet to cross its path again until I went to Sichuan and since then it's been in a lot of the food I've eaten. To be honest I don't care for its flavor and it numbs the mouth and overpowers everything else for a couple minutes after eating one.

Goofy faced statue in Shanghai
Goofy faced statue in Shanghai

After Xi'an I made a quick stop in Shanghai and the neighboring Suzhou. I'd heard great things about Shanghai and always wanted to go but didn't think I'd make it there on this trip. Thanks to China's bullet trains which travel at over 300 kilometers per hour I was able to see more of China than expected. Like the modern city/country of Singapore, I was a bit disappointed with Shanghai. I guess modern just doesn't really impress me.

Suzhou on the other hand is full of gardens and temples and sounded like an ideal spot for me. Unfortunately I found the gardens there to be a bit of a let down as well. Empty rooms and fake concrete rocks sparsely scattered with dry plants wasn't exactly what I envisioned. When one of my best friends who lives in Beijing and who I haven't seen in years told me that he'd have to work the whole time I was planning to be in Beijing, I bought the first train ticket I could to go see him. In the end I only spent one day each in Shanghai and Suzhou and I'm content that that was enough.

Blooming cherry trees at Beijing Botanical Gardens
Blooming cherry trees at Beijing Botanical Gardens

I'm glad I went to Beijing early—it's a big city with lots to see. My friend Evan and his wife Amy met me at the train station and escorted me back to their apartment. The next day Evan and I went around to several of the Beijing tourist spots and then met up with Amy when she got off work to enjoy a classic Chinese hot pot which featured my old friend the flower pepper. Beijing also afforded me an opportunity to catch up with a couple more friends that I made in the Philippines.

After a couple days in Beijing I headed to the nearby Tianjin for the weekend so I could play in an ultimate frisbee tournament with my friend Rob who I was traveling with at the beginning of my China trip. Rob's friend who invited us to the tournament said that we could stay in one of the dorms at the sports college in Tianjin. I met Rob and his friend at the sports college and they informed me that we had to lurk outside for a bit until the night guard fell asleep. I took out a disc and we began to toss under the street lights. A little after 10pm I noticed a group students gather under a neighboring street light. I suspected some shady activity was going to take place—gambling or a drug deal or something like that—but was pleasantly surprised when I heard them practicing their a cappella. It was like something out of a movie to see a group of people singing on the curb under a street light. A little while later we successfully snuck into the dorm which may have been the most trashed place I've seen on this trip, including the hobo-inhabited abandon buildings I broke into.

Me at the tournament party
Me at the tournament party

The tournament was held on really nice fields at the sports college and being without cleats I played Wala style once more. Rob and I were on the Xi'an team named Rou Jia Mo which is also the name of a delicious and popular meat sandwich in Xi'an. Conveniently there was a Rou Jia Mo stand right by the fields so Rob and I both got one after our last game. The team was abnormally large so I didn't get as much playing time as I'm used to. The team itself played ok and finished toward the bottom of the highest pool. More importantly we won the spirit award for the tournament.

Like most ultimate tournaments there was a party on Saturday night and like most tournaments there was a theme. The theme for the Tianjin party was "Tight and Bright" so before I left Beijing I went shopping with Evan and Amy and bought some really cheap, really tight and really bright cloths. With a bright wig and glasses borrowed from my other Beijing friends I was ready to rock, and rock I did. After the tournament was over I headed back to Beijing to hang out with my friends and see some more of the city. I've been able to avoid the flower pepper when dining out in Beijing the last couple days and I hope to continue that trend.

Soundtrack: Give It Up (KC and the Sunshine Band)
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Stairway To Heaven

Huashan from the east peak
Huashan from the east peak

One of the most stunning views you'll ever see is said to be the sun rising over the mountain peaks at Huashan. It was a damp, cold evening when I arrived in the village at the base of Huashan and the locals told me the sun wouldn't be visible for days. Having not gotten sufficient rest in several days I decided that rather than start climbing that night and spend a tortured time at the summit hoping to see the sun, I'd get a room and set off first thing in the morning.

The trail up Huashan increased in slope to the very end, gaining about 2k of elevation over the 6k path. I was very surprised to be nearly alone during my hike up the mountain. Alone that is, until I reached the summit and joined with colonies of Chinese tourists who had taken the cable car up the other side. Huashan is actually a cluster of five connected mountain peaks and once you've reached one of them it's relatively easy to access the others. I had brought a bar of Ritter Sport chocolate with me to enjoy at the summit as is my custom when climbing mountains. Given the unique layout of Huashan I decided to split the bar up and eat just a portion at each peak, rewarding myself as each summit seemed somehow higher than all the others.

Me and my friends from Huashan
Me and my friends from Huashan

Perhaps due to the extra climbing it takes to get from the north peak where the cable car drops off to some of the other peaks, I again found myself alone. I sat for a while at the east peak and carved up the whole pineapple which comprised most of my sustenance for the day. I took in the beauty of the mountains. If Huashan isn't the most beautiful place I've ever been it's certainly in the top three. White granite peaks with gray and black vertical stains stab holes in the clouds. Green life seems to impossibly cling to their inhospitably vertical faces. Uncommonly viscus clouds rise up from the valley but come to rest as if in fear of approaching the peaks. I was nearly breathless at an elevation where breathing isn't trouble.

On my descent from the mountain I walked past some young Chinese men taking pictures and one of them asked if I wouldn't mind posing with them. I told him I didn't mind and after taking a few photos we began the descent together. We went down "the soldiers trail" which shadows the cable car and takes a more direct route to the base of the mountain than the path I had gone up. I divided my remaining four squares of chocolate amongst the group on our way down. One of the men mentioned that he and one of the others were leaving for Xi'an when they got back, the exact place that I was off to next. We arrived in Xi'an and went straight to dinner, before even finding a place to stay. The food was delicious and we followed it up by a short walk to the Big Goose Pagoda where we were perfectly on time for the nightly water fountain show which is choreographed to lights and music. The whole scene reminded me of something I think I saw in an old Carmen Sandiego cartoon and when the music was classical Chinese I became transfixed in one of those moments where all senses come together and take in nothing but the present. Magical.

The 3 stages of the bread soup
The 3 stages of the bread soup

The next day my new friends and I went sight seeing which actually involved spending most of the day eating. We stopped at one famous restaurant near the end of a busy street lined with nothing but food vendors. We each received a bowl with two circular unleavened pieces of bread. We were instructed to tear the bread into tiny piece and then return it to the restaurant, which we dutifully did. A little while later a mutton soup with our little pieces of bread was brought back to us. It was a delicious albeit salty broth with a slight hint of anise, a flavor which seems to be quite common in China. As the sun was beginning to set we ascended the old city wall and rented bicycles so we could trace it's 13.7k perimeter. Being on the wall was another near magical experience. All of a sudden I was above the chaos of a crowded Asian city. All the noises lessened. The stench from the sewers didn't rise up that high, just the fragrance of the blooming lilacs at the tops of the trees. The cloud of smog transformed into a filter for the sun making it beautiful and able to be stared directly into..

When the night was dark and we were again at the level of the common man I collected my things and we walked to a different nearby hostel, one which my recent friends from Chengdu had told me they just checked into. We met them in the hostel lobby and all went out for a few drinks. The next day my Chinese friends from Huashan had to go home so I went with my Chengdu friends to see the terracotta warriors. Having already been prepared for disappointment I was somehow still let down when we arrived. My disinterest was evident when I was going through my camera and found 187 pictures from Huashan and only 4 from the warriors. No matter, I was in good company and we made the best of it. The weather during my entire time in Xi'an was perfect. I felt as if I had been transported from first the blazing heat of Venus when I was in Southeast Asia, to the icy surface of Mars in lower China, and then perfectly placed on the crust of earth. Huashan was beautiful and Xi'an was a blast.

Soundtrack: Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd)
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Shangri-low and Cheng-don't

Napa "Lake" outside of Shangri-La
Napa "Lake" outside of Shangri-La

Shangri-La is a made up place written about by author James Hilton in his 1933 novel Lost Horizon. Wait, what? It's a real place? In an attempt to boost tourism in 2001 China renamed the city of Zhongdian which apparently inspired Hilton's dreamscape, to Shangri-La. The road into town is imposed with large empty buildings and construction sites for more large empty buildings. Clearly modeled after Lijiang, Shangri-La has two main sections: an old town consisting of jittery stone streets enclosed with tacky shops, and a new town which looks like every other Chinese city: colorless buildings fading into industrialization. Like my previous mountain destinations in China (Shangri-La sits at 3,200m), warm water is commonly served. Perhaps tea is too expensive in Southwest China, but I've never been anywhere else where boiling water is served alone.

The two main tourist attractions in Shangri-La are an over-priced rebuilt monastery and a seasonal lake which wasn't in season. We went to both sites and got closer than most people do without paying, but not all the way to either destination. I began to feel sick, I suspect due to all the Tibetan yak products I was consuming. At short-last it was time for Rob and I to head in separate directions and for me to begin a long journey to Chengdu. The hard sleeper cars in Chinese trains are surprisingly comfortable and usually more interesting than taking a bus. On my 20hr train ride from Kunming to Chengdu the inhabitants of our car decided to turn the bottom level of beds in my section into the designated gambling area. I'm not sure what card game they were playing but it had a similar playing style to most card games I've observed on this trip, which is that each player seems obligated to slam his cards down in the center pile with more force and vigor than the man before him. I say man because I haven't seen a single woman playing cards apart from when I played with Thao and her friends in Vietnam.

A few guys playing cards on the train to Chengdu
A few guys playing cards on the train to Chengdu

I arrived in Chengdu around 6:30am and tried to meet up with a guy from CouchSurfing. After a frustrating 2hrs I gave up and returned to the railway station which is also where the main bus and subway lines converge. I was sitting on the entrance to the subway station when things began to shake. I've spent a decent amount of time in New York city and I'm used to things rattling when a train goes by so I thought nothing of it. The shaking increased and then everyone started running out of the railway station right in front of me. I wasn't sure what was going on but I honestly expected to see a train come flying out of the building and boom to a halt of scattered bricks directly at my feet. I've seen to many American movies. No crazy train had gone off the rails, it was just an earthquake. When the shaking was over everyone ran back into the ticket office with the same effort they had originally fled it. In two minutes time there was no sign that anything had happened.

Having given up on meeting the guy from CouchSurfing I walked to a nearby hostel. Chengdu is known for two things which happen to both be favorites of mine: spicy food and a game called wéiqí or as it's more commonly known in the United States and Japan, GO. Two of the hostel staff were playing a simplified version of the game called gomoku and when I asked if anyone knew how to play the regular game, everyone admitted that they didn't. I had searched online for where to play wéiqí in the city and even sent a few emails, but chances of me finding a game seemed slim since apparently it's played in underground locations which move from week to week. I taught some of the staff and guests how to play the proper game and everyone seemed to enjoy it. So much so in fact that when I left to go meet the guy from CouchSurfing at last, people continued to play for a good portion of the day.

Chengdu railway ticket office which wasn't destroyed by a crazy train
Chengdu railway ticket office which wasn't destroyed by a crazy train

The guy from CouchSurfing and I went around town and tried a few local specialties. The food was spicy but not as spicy as I was expecting. It was however, far more greasy than I was expecting. We had many good conversations covering a range of topics. He explained to me that most people play cards these days as wéiqí and mahjong take too much time and patience. After helping me buy a train ticket to my next destination, we left each other at the train station where I had originally arrived. When he had gone I hurried back to the hostel to make sure I was on time for the free dumpling party they were having.

A fun group of hostel staff and guests all made then ate several trays of dumplings. After the meal and a bit more wéiqí we decided to go out drinking. I've been so drunk that I passed out but I've never been so drunk that I blacked out. That evening was no exception but I think it's the blurriest night I have on memory. I remember being in a confusingly decorated bar and singing a Chinese version of Bad Romance and then being in an abandon hotel lobby and finally being in a private karaoke room. I remember literally rolling on the floor laughing while trying to sing a duet with a Dutch guy that had clearly never heard the song before. In short, a good time was had and we all made it back to the hostel around 6am. Or did we? As I was saying good bye the next day I asked where the Chilean guy was who had joined us that morning. I had figured he was still sleeping but the Austrian guy said he wasn't in his room. No one had seen him all day and no one remembered bringing him home. I know he was with us when we were in the private karaoke room which is where we called it a night. I'm hoping he made it back and just woke up before everyone else and went to go see some sights. I had planned to depart at 7am to go see some semi-wild pandas, but needless to say that didn't happen.

I'm not really sure what the implied prohibition here is
I'm not really sure what the implied prohibition here is

I saw most of the tourist sights in Shangri-La and was underwhelmed, and I saw few of the tourist sights in Chengdu but had a great time. Being from what I like to consider one of the safest places on earth—Madison, Wisconsin—I've never been in a real earthquake before. While people from more tectonically active places might not even notice a 6.6 to 7.1 sized rumble (reports vary on the size of the one I experienced), I thought it was very interesting. Now I'm on to climb another mountain and then perhaps see some terracotta warriors.

Have you been to the gallery in a while? It's new and improved and better than ever. All of the full sized images should load now, thanks to my younger brother letting me know there were issues. If things aren't working right on the site or you have an idea for a suggestion, please let me know. Also, if you haven't liked DangerTravels on Facebook, I suggest you do. Of course I won't know because I'm in China at the moment and forbidden to access Facebook. It'll be a fun surprise to see how many people like the page when I get to South Korea on May 10th.

Soundtrack: City of New Orleans (Arlo Guthrie)
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Hiking in Yunnan

Beginning of Tiger Leaping Gorge
Beginning of Tiger Leaping Gorge

Rob and I arrived in Lijiang just fine but missed the only bus to the trail head of the Tiger Leaping Gorge trek so we found a place to stay for the night. The old city part of Lijiang looks exactly like what I would expect stereotypical China to look like. It's a labyrinth of cobblestone alleys lined with ornate shops marked with wooden signs encouraging people to be civilized and topped with bent shingle roofs. We tried the local specialties which included "chicken bean jelly" which is made out of beans that resemble chicken eyes. We also had our first taste of yak milk yogurt which I expected to dislike but which I pleasantly enjoyed.

Lijiang Old Town
Lijiang Old Town

We left for the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail head the next morning and thanks to our one day delay and modern technology we were able to meet up with our Malaysian friend Xien shortly after we got there. An English guy named Jason that we met at the trail head joined us for the two-day trek. We stopped for a break at the highest point of the trail to put on warm cloths and of course, toss a disc. We made it to a guest house called "The Halfway House" in the late afternoon. For dinner Jason, Xien, Rob and I split a "whole chicken hot pot" which came as a metal bowl full of the undesirable parts of the chicken. After a large beer and some light banter we all turned in for the night. The next morning we woke up early and barring a small delay when some cows blocked the path, made good time to the end of the trail.

Layout over Tiger Leaping Gorge
Layout over Tiger Leaping Gorge

From that point we all did an optional and almost entirely vertical hike down the mountain to the point in the gorge where they say a tiger leapt over the river. Rob and I went ahead of the others and practically ran up and down since we had to catch an earlier bus to our next destination. The trek down the gorge was impeded by locals claiming that they own a section of the trail and demanding that you pay them in order to pass. Initially Rob and I tried to walk past them but things quickly turned sour and instantly recalled my experience on Fanxipan mountain so eventually we paid the price and went down. Unfortunately the bottom was a bit of a let-down and knowing that we probably wouldn't have gone.

Shortly after returning to the end of the Tiger Leaping Gorge trail, Rob and I took a bus to Haba village where we instantly began looking for a guide. After a very short search we found a guy who was willing to take us up the mountain. He didn't speak any English but between the Mandarin we knew and Google Translate we were able to ask him if we could hike up the mountain that night. It was around at the time and the man counted on his fingers and then shook his head yes. We rented the necessary supplies which included crampons, ice picks, supplemental oxygen, and for me, a warm coat, hat and gloves.

We set off through Haba village where we stopped to buy some noodles. Haba village had very much the feel of an old mountain town, untouched by the hands of time. An hour or two up the mountain we came upon a clearing which was being used for pasture. We stopped for a break and took in the beautiful scenery. Unlike Tiger Leaping Gorge there were no signs of other travelers on this mountain. Just above the clearing we noticed beautiful lavender colored tree flowers climbing up the mountain. The flowers were visible for a good portion of the remaining daylight and before they disappeared they overlapped with the same type of wispy green moss that the nomadic tribe that took me over Mt. Rinjani in Indonesia had been collecting.

Me and the guide in Haba pasture
Me and the guide in Haba pasture

Haba village relaxes at around 2,600m and unbeknownst to me, base camp sits freezing at around 4,200m. The guide was clearly interested in making time and often cut straight up the innumerous switchbacks. For both Haba and Tiger Leaping Gorge, Rob and I had brought my pack full of stuff and Rob's small day pack, switching off periodically. The waning crescent moon provided little light so after it was too dark to walk we stopped to put on headlamps. I'm not sure what altitude we were at when we did that, but that was around the time I started feeling nauseous. For the remainder of the night my symptoms of altitude sickness worsened and eventually Rob had to take full time duty on carrying the big pack. During the whole hike our guide was chain smoking and signing songs which evoked thoughts of the North American natives. After I began drunk-stumbling up the mountain and needing breaks more frequently I asked him if he could walk behind us so his cigarette smoke wouldn't blow in my face. Rather than stay behind he opted to only smoke during breaks, during which he conscientiously walked a little bit away from us.

Around the trail got nasty. Real nasty. We must have been above the snow line but below the frost line because melting snow on unfrozen ground created inches of slippery mud which turned to watery slush and eventually thick snow. We arrived at base camp sometime after and quickly entered the rugged stone structure. Initially the building appeared empty but around a corner at the far end of the hut we found a group of guides playing a game like mah jong with over-sized tiles. Our guide soon joined them and after losing a decent sum of money, quickly departed from the game. Dinner that night was bland noodles which I was originally too sick to eat. Breakfast was a flavorless traditional Tibetan dough ball and broth known as zanba. The food in China has been spectacular aside from everything we ate during our 4 days of hiking. Sometime after we all turned in for the night.

Base camp on Haba Mountain
Base camp on Haba Mountain

We knew we had two options for the next morning: 1) Wake up at and attempt the 8hr hike to the summit, followed by 14hrs back down to the village. 2) Wake up around and leisurely walk back to Haba village. Given my altitude sickness, our exhaustion from the previous days of hiking and our late bed time, we decided to go with option 2. It would have been nice to attempt the summit but we simply weren't prepared for it. We should have had more gear—like snow pants and snow boots—and spent a day resting in both Haba village and at base camp. It turns out most people that attempt the summit do it in three to five days though it has been done in just two.

The hike back to Haba village felt like a breeze and required far fewer breaks. We spent a long while relaxing in the grassy meadow we had passed on the way up. The pasture was a little more alive that day and Rob tried to get close to a yak and later fed some goats which were otherwise occupied by sneaking up on our guide who was on his phone for every second we had reception. While waiting for our transport from Haba village back to Lijiang we tried to use Google Translate to thank our guide for the experience and let him know that we had a good time. After showing him the message we decided to translate it back into English just to see what it said. Our first sentence originally read: "We enjoyed the hike" and was translated to "We are entitled to raise interest rates". When we finally made it back to Lijiang we set off to buy tickets to our next destination and were surprised when our Malaysian friend Xien appeared and announced that he had thought he heard our voices. We all went out for some delicious dinner and then we said good bye to Xien once again.

Guide on his phone getting snuck up on my goats
Guide on his phone getting snuck up on my goats

So far China has been very different than Southeast Asia. Less people speak English, the food is way more flavorful and things are a bit more expensive. I love being in nature, I really enjoy hiking and I can't help but feel good when I'm in the presence of mountains even when I'd otherwise be feeling awful. Haba definitely bested me but I still had a great time hiking it. I think if I was a bit more prepared and had more time we certainly could have reached the summit. Tiger Leaping Gorge wasn't the toughest trek but it was beautiful and we had good company. The Tiger Leaping Middle trek was a let down but luckily that was only a small portion of the several days worth of hiking. I still feel rushed to see the country and am constantly frustrated by the Internet but I'm very much looking forward to the rest of my time in China.

Soundtrack: Young Americans (David Bowie)
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Police State

Me and Rob
Me and Rob

I haven't written in a while because I've been busy working on a project. What's the project you ask? I'll tell you later when I've got something good to show for it, which hopefully will be soon. During my almost 1 month stay in Sapa I spent most of my time in my hotel room working. For the last two weeks I would only leave the hotel once a day on average, and just long enough to buy fruit and/or water for the next day or two. The owner of the hotel I was staying at was a real nice guy and would always invite me to the staff/family lunch and dinners. The night before I left he threw me a going away party with his staff and some of the other hotel owners in town. There were lots of cooked snails and some local apple wine.

Eventually it was time for me to leave Sapa and head into China to meet up with my friend Rob and do some hiking. You remember Rob, don't you? He was on my frisbee team in Bangkok and then we hung out at Otres beach in Cambodia and attended the father kings funeral in Phnom Penh. My journey from Sapa to Kunming wasn't without trial but it was nothing insurmountable. I met a guy from Malaysia and a guy from Thailand on my ride from Sapa to the Chinese boarder and they were heading to the same place in China as me so we all stuck together.

Huge pot of rice for serving yourself
Huge pot of rice for serving yourself

I've done many border crossings in my day and I've never had anyone scrutinize my documents like the Chinese immigration official. He questioned why I didn't write my unusual middle name on my arrival card. After crossing into China we spent the better part of an hour trying to find and ATM and then a place that would exchange USD—neither of which are usually hard to find. Luckily the Malaysian guy was fluent in both English and Mandarin. After getting some money we bought a bus ticket to our final destination that evening. Much to my surprise ours bus left exactly on time. Unsurprisingly our bus was stopped shorty after departure and searched by police. They inspected everyones documents and removed all the foreign passports to a roadside police stand. The Thai guy went to take a picture of the policeman but before he could one of them spotted him, pointed at us and started yelling, then ran onto the bus, grabbed his camera and yelled at him some more in Chinese. They searched the camera and not finding any pictures of the police they gave it back. So far I've needed my passport to buy a trian ticket, check into a hotel and buy a SIM card for my phone.

My first views of China showed it to be very different than my Vietnamese home of the last two months. The streets were cleaner, the people seemed nicer, the buses weren't overcrowded, and best of all, the food was spicy and full of flavor. We had a buffet style meal in the bus station before we left and another before we arrived in Kunming. Both times we were instructed to serve ourselves rice from huge pots of cooked rice. The one thing that seems to be more frustrating in China so far is the Internet. And it's much more frustrating. I can't use Chrome, Firefox or access google.com; when I'm on a website—like gmail—it will randomly redirect me to google.com.hk after a couple minutes—and I do mean randomly (read: in the middle of an email). My VPN only works some of the time and the Opera web browser seems to work consistently but slowly. I have to say I'm even a little scared to be publicly criticizing anything about China while I'm still in their country.

Soundtrack: Roam (The B52's)
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The Vietnamese Mafia

Sundown just below Sapa
Sundown just below Sapa

The mafia is everywhere in Vietnam and the further north I moved the more I became aware of it. I was in a coffee shop in Hanoi when the mafia came in to "give a stern talking to" to the woman who owned the place because she was three days behind on the daily interest she was supposed to pay them. Shortly after arriving at the hotel I'm currently in the owner began complaining about the mafia and how much interest he has to pay for the loan they gave him. You'd think after my run-in with the porter mafia I would have left the city of Sapa immediately—and part of me wanted to—but I didn't.

I finally got my visa to China but it wasn't the 1 year multiple entry visa I applied for. It was only a 30 day single entry visa. I don't have to enter China until April 11th so I'm planning to stay in Sapa for a while and do research for my trip to China, try to relax and also work on a project with my brother in the US. The project I'm working on is very large and complex and involves my writing a very large website so I've done my best to sequester myself to my hotel room and work non-stop since I've been here.

I usually have to leave my room at least once a day if for no other reason than to get food. I've been subsisting primarily on the free breakfast at the hotel and on the fruit I can buy for local prices because I made deal with a vendor who will keep selling to me at low prices to ensure my business in the future. I get 1kg of apples for 75 cents, a whole peeled pineapple for 50 cents and papaya and banana for some really low price per kilo. I only go out for meals about once every two days, mostly to vary my diet.

Less than $2 US worth of fruit
Less than $2 US worth of fruit

One night I went to the market for dinner because that's the only place in the tourist district of Sapa that you can get authentic Vietnamese food. While I was waiting for my food to arrive a group of four young guys came and sat at a table next to me. The leader of the group had on a nice leather coat and a fedora and he was holding a stack of bills in his hand. To his left was a large man who I internally nicknamed "Lurch" on account of his general presence and demeanor. To the head guy's right was a fashionably dressed man and a guy on his cell phone with dark circles under his eyes. No sooner had I gotten done convincing myself that these guys were definitely in the mafia than they invited me to come sit with them. Refusing an invitation in Vietnamese culture is very insulting and if these guys were part of the mafia I definitely didn't want to piss them off.

I went over and joined the men at their table and shortly afterward my plate of green vegetables arrived. The men ordered some food and while waiting for it they ordered a bottle of local rice wine. They told me they had already had a couple bottles and their rowdy behavior corroborated the allegation. The two guys in the center of the group spoke English well. The main guy had a strong tick when a spoke which caused his head to move in the shape of an upside down question mark punctuating each sentence. After our second bottle of rice wine their food arrived.

The view out of my new hotel window on a clear day
The view out of my new hotel window on a clear day

One of the men asked me where I was staying and I told him the name of the hotel. They all quickly had a laugh and then he explained to me that he's a tour guide and that he works for the hotel I'm staying at. In fact, they were all tour guides and that's why apart from Lurch they spoke such good English. They were out having a good time because the head guy was getting married in a few months and he's leaving to go back to his home town.

It wasn't until we were done with the third bottle of the vile drink that we had rice with our food. They explained that in north Vietnam you don't eat rice while drinking and when you do eat rice it's a sign you're done drinking for the night. I'll have to have a Vietnamese style drinking party when I get back. In such a party you wouldn't be allowed to fill your own glass or drink alone and while toasting you'd either touch your glass higher or lower than the other person's based on your relative status. When the evening is over there would be rice for all.

The view out of my new hotel window on a cloudy day
The view out of my new hotel window on a cloudy day

I've been offered a lot of drinks during my time in Sapa. On one occasion I was tossing a disc with a bunch of locals in the middle of the central market and one of them motioned to ask if he could keep the disc. I motioned that he could and immediately his friend ran over with a 5 gallon gas tank half full of moonshine to offer me. I politely declined. A couple days later I was in the lobby of my hotel when a man walked downstairs that I had met at a new years eve party in Cambodia 3 months ago. He's also a web developer so of course we hit it off initially. He was on his way out of town but he treated me to a beer before he left. While seeing him was certainly unexpected, that sort of thing happens enough that it didn't seem unusual.

Things have gotten better since I first arrived in Sapa and the town is growing on me as I find the good local places (and start getting the good local prices). The days when cool fresh air comes down from the nearby mountain peaks seem to eclipse the days when the smell of putrid raw sewage rises up from the valley below. I've been so busy working on this project that I haven't done any of the numerous day hikes around Sapa and I've fallen behind on a lot of things like making posts on my blog. Until mid-to-early April you can expect about the same. That said, since I'm in one place with a fairly good and stable Internet connection if you're interested in chatting some time, let me know what time works for you and I can almost certainly be free.

Soundtrack: Damn It Feels Good To Be A Gangsta (Geto Boys)
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Trouble On The Mountain

View up the main street in Sapa
View up the main street in Sapa

All the countries I've been to in Southeast Asia seem to have their main ways of making money. In Indonesia it was parking, in Malaysia it was security, in Cambodia it was sex. Vietnam it seems, prefers to extort theirs out of people. On our short trip to Ha Long Bay nearly every person we came in contact with tried to rip us off, they even tried to rip of T when she was alone, confirming that they rip off southern Vietnamese in the north just as bad as they rip off foreigners. Adverse weather and digestive conditions prevented us from taking a boat tour so we left Ha Long Bay to head to the mountain town of Sa Pa.

T was drawn to Sa Pa for the same reason most tourists are: trekking. She had her mind set on climbing Fansipan, Vietnam's highest peak. We spent most of the first day in Sa Pa getting ready for the hike. Several outfitting companies offered overpriced packages including a guide and porter, but we figured we could do without either of those things. I was happy to carry our stuff and we figured the trail would be pretty obvious since it's fairly popular. The problem was that we didn't have the proper gear; no tent or sleeping bags and T was light on warm cloths. We stopped at the tourist information center and said they said there's a law which requires you to go with a guide or porter so we set out to find one.

Unlike other places in Vietnam, Sa Pa has two distinct cultures: the Vietnamese and the Hmong. The Hmong are the indigenous people that live in the villages and come into town to sell their wares (and cheap Chinese products). I'm used to the Hmong; for whatever reason my home state has a lot of them. I found the Hmong in Sa Pa as easy to get along with as those back home. All the porters used by the outfitting companies come from the Hmong villages so we figured we'd cut out the middleman and just ask around and see if we could find someone ourselves. After hitting up the market and looking online we finally found a guy that had a tent and sleeping bags and was willing to take us for a fair price. We made plans and gathered the rest of the supplies we needed and turned in early so we could get up first thing in the morning to start our adventure.

Hmong villagers pushing their wares on some Russians
Hmong villagers pushing their wares on some Russians

Sunrise over the mountains surrounding Sa Pa was beautiful and the air was cool and crisp. I donned my vomit yellow jersey and the straw hat I got at the frisbee tournament in Cambodia. It's an awful combination and I think it gives people a bad impression of me; I've decided never to wear it again. The trail head for Fansipan is about 15k out of Sa Pa and our porter/guide said he'd meet us at our hotel in the morning with his son and take us there on motorbikes. He said he'd have a place for us to stash our stuff.

The man arrived at our hotel on time but alone and with nothing other than two sleeping bags and a tiny backpack. His son couldn't make it, we'd have to rent motorbike taxis he told us. He also bid us leave our stuff at the hotel which we hadn't intended to return to but who was nice enough to hold onto it anyway. There was a misunderstanding about the food situation as well: apparently the price he quoted us—which is the price of a normal meal—was just to cook the food, we'd have to supply the food ourselves. T and I had each packed a day pack but we had a few things for him to carry and it was obvious that that wasn't going to happen so I left the non-essentials like my hiking boots behind.

We all went to hire a motorbike taxi and as soon as we struck a deal another misunderstanding came to light. Our guide still wanted us to pay a transportation fee to cover the gas in his bike. We told him we would pay for the gas but that he'd have to take one of us on his bike so we wouldn't have to rent two taxis. He acquiesced and I got on back.

The road to the trail head was nice but full of switchbacks which our guide was taking very wide and at quite an angle. "Turn the wheel you fool, you'll kill us both!" I wanted to scream, but since he spoke no English I held my tongue. Perhaps it'll just kill me, I thought, he was wearing a helmet but I wasn't since he only brought one having no intention of giving either T or I a ride in the first place.

Sapa before sunset
Sapa before sunset

We made it to the trail head and stopped in the ranger station to pay our fees. The ranger started writing a list. The first five were all things we were expecting but the next fee, which was $20 US was unexpected. "What's this?" we asked. "Insurance" he said. "But one of the other fees is insurance, and we don't want any, what's the difference?" we replied. "It's a fee for not using an outfitting company" the officer said. It had all gone too far and that was the last straw. There was no $20 fee, that was just something the ranger and guide were going to split.

T and I discussed it: we'd had enough. We told the porter we didn't want to do the trek anymore and we'd find our own way home. We offered him the food and a little bit of money. He wanted more money. We didn't want to give him more money so we came to an impasse. He didn't speak any English, I didn't speak any Vietnamese. Communication broke down. After a long period of silence I decided I'd just walk back to town so I got up and started leaving and told T she could join me. I made it about twenty meters to where the driveway met the road without looking back. That was a mistake. That was wrong of me. I shouldn't have left T. She was fallowing close behind but not close enough. The porter ran up behind her and grabbed her and she screamed out to me. I immediately came running and the porter didn't wait for me to get there to let go.

I quickly got in between T and the equally tiny porter. Some words were exchanged between us that weren't translated and then the porter picked up a baseball sized rock. I didn't flinch or change in demeanor—I wasn't scared of him, even with a rock. "He wants more money now" T said. "That's crazy, I'm not giving him more than what we offered" I replied. That's when the other porters that had been watching from a distance decided to group up behind our porter. "They want violence" T said. I didn't respond. She repeated: "They want violence". I calmly returned: "I don't want to fight with anyone". That's not to say I wouldn't have fought with them, but I certainly didn't want to. They were all small guys and I reckoned I could have taken any 4 or 5 of them, but not 10+. She said it once more: "They want violence".

It's amazing how many things go through your head both consciously and unconsciously in the blink of an eye. Would they fight fair? Would they use weapons? Would they hurt a woman? Would the park rangers do anything? The park rangers had been standing by idly this whole time and if they got involved I don't think it would have been to help us. The only other bystander was a woman selling drinks on the street who looked as if there were a water trough to dive into or a bar to hide behind, she would have, anticipating a one-sided donnybrook or old fashioned rumble. I noticed that several of the porters had forearm length machetes. I remembered how hard of a time the American soldiers had fighting against the Vietnamese on account of their guerrilla tactics. Then I looked at T and realized that her safety was in my hands and I had promised I'd do everything in my power to get her safely out of the mountains.

The type of machetes the porters had
The type of machetes the porters had

I reached into my back pocket and took out my money. Immediately the wind grabbed a large bill and blew it toward the porters where it caught a rock. No one motioned for it. I walked over calmly and picked it up. Adding another bill of kind to it I started toward our porter. As I approached him all kinds of thoughts went through my head. I would have loved to spit on it, crumple it and drop it in front of him, but that would have been as good as dropping a glove in front of a knight and I expected no chivalry from him. Without saying anything I handed our porter the money, walked over to T and we both began descending the road.

Once we were out of their sight we took a moment to calm ourselves. The experience had shaken both of us. I was angry, embarrassed, frustrated and ashamed. We walked a bit further to a waterfall and ate a bit of chocolate I had brought. After we had collected ourselves we set off down the road and quickly flagged down a passing motorbike. The man on the bike was very nice and offered to give us both a lift back to town. On the way back he pointed out all kinds of things to T and when I tried to give him some money upon arrival he wouldn't accept it. We spent the rest of the day getting massages and watching funny movies.

It was a traumatic experience for both me and T and I dare say the closest I've been to death on this trip. I'm a man of principal, I'm willing to put my own safety in jeopardy to stand up for what I believe in, but I'm also a man of my word. On the ride back to town I began to ponder: Am I willing to stand up for what I believe in at someone else's expense? I believe my actions proved that I'm not, but I let the situation go too far and perhaps that was a question I needed to ponder. As I told a friend a while ago, the best experiences aren't always pleasant.

Soundtrack: Don't Look Back In Anger (Oasis)
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Alcohol and Ice Cream

Me and Chien enjoying some beer together
Me and Chien enjoying some beer together

I don't drink as much alcohol as it might seem from reading my blog but I probably eat way more ice cream than you'd think. I've stopped traveling with a bottle of booze in my pack and I almost exclusively drink when invited to. On our first day in Hanoi T and I met up with one of her friends named Chien. I like Chien a lot; he's very funny, considerate and has an expressive countenance. After getting drinks, going bowling and enjoying a nice dinner we ended the evening sitting on tiny stools at a curbside restaurant/bar drinking "fresh beer" which is what they call beer on tap. Chien insisted that we have 10 glasses each since it was the 10th of the month. The city closed down around us and a group of young men moved into the intersection to play a game of keep-away with a soccer ball.

The next night we met up with Chien again and finished the evening drinking cans of local beer in front of the opera house. T had worried me a little when we were in the south by telling me that it's really cold in the north of Vietnam this time of year but I find the evenings to be very pleasant. Our perch on the long stone steps provided an excellent vantage point to watch the city go by. As we sat there drinking a young couple came to do their wedding shoot in the middle of the intersection at around 11 o'clock.

Mid-intersection night time wedding shoot
Mid-intersection night time wedding shoot

The next night we met up with a woman named Kate who I met at the frisbee tournament in Phnom Penh a couple weeks prior. Kate lives in Hanoi and works at PATH, an international organization bent of making the world healthier. Kate invited me to the Hanoi pickup ultimate game which was a little ill-attended on account of the light mist in the air, but was a bunch of fun nonetheless. Over dinner at Kate's apartment we each had a glass of whiskey, then another, and another, until the bottle which was previously two-thirds full was now empty and my phone told me it was almost 4 in the morning.

I think a big factor with the locals is that they're all curious to see how much I can drink. During our last night in Hanoi Chien had T and I over for dinner with his family. His father—who had also fought in the Vietnam war—was very generous and welcoming and encouraged me several times to "drink as much as [I] can". I managed to escape after drinking only a couple beers but I was not let off the hook so easily with the overflowing table of delicious food they'd prepared for me.

Coconut ice cream in coconut dish
Coconut ice cream in coconut dish

On one of our nights with Chien we went to a dessert place for their dish of mangoes with cream. While we were there I noticed that they were selling an absurd amount of flan—I'm talking several hundred per night: people were buying them to go by the half-score. T and I went back there the next day to try some of the flan when I noticed something served in a dish made out of coconut. The coconut ice cream topped with shredded coconut and chopped peanuts proved to be as delicious as it looked. I had ice cream at least five times in the four days I was in Hanoi. On one occasion T and I went to a local ice cream shop that was selling ice cream like the delicatessen sold flan. They only had cones of vanilla ice cream but it had a unique flavor—perhaps it was a hint of citrus—and texture—I suspect it was that of ice cream made without a modern ice cream machine—and came in a cone made of rice. In Indonesia I got addicted to a pre packaged ice cream cone made by a company called Cornetto. The Cornetto chocolate cone features chocolate ice cream with swirls of dark chocolate, topped with a large disc of chocolate in a chocolate cone with the bottom full of chocolate: truly the greatest accomplishment of humans to date. Several people have commented recently that I don't seem to be gaining weight despite how much I consume: I had a chance to weigh myself recently and I can assure that I have gained wait unfortunately.

Soundtrack: Moondance (Van Morrison)
2 comments

Bus Passenger Pirates

A fleet of tour boats at Trang An
A fleet of tour boats at Trang An

I've gotten used to taxi and ferry boat mafias. Drivers all hang out together and know that since you've got no other option you'll end up paying their inflated price so long as no one tries to undercut the market. Even between different companies they all seem to get along; especially bus drivers, who are always honking, waiving and rousing each other. It didn't seem odd at all when my mini bus from one small town to another in northern Vietnam pulled along side a full-size tour bus and the guy that takes the money leaned out the open door and started banging on the side of the bus. It also didn't seem out of place when the driver of our bus motioned for the driver of the big bus to roll down his window so that he could yell something over the screech of horns which are constantly heard throughout the country. The Vietnamese language is such that it's hard to tell from an outsiders perspective if two guys are having a heated argument or a regular conversation. I knew something was amiss however when our bus quickly cut diagonally in front of the big tour bus forcing it to the curb. The money taker from our bus got out and approached the door of the tour bus and started yelling inside. After a several minute standoff the few passengers from the big bus got off. The money taker tried to get them onto our bus but they weren't having any of it so eventually we let the big bus go and then left with the passengers standing on the side of the road. Unfortunately T couldn't hear what was said and didn't know what was happening either, but I suspect that the big tour bus was trying to shuttle people to Hanoi for a greatly reduced price so they wouldn't have to ride back empty and the local bus company wasn't happy about it. For what it's worth I don't think the mini bus that we were on was charging more than a reasonable price—the equivalent of $2 US for an over 1hr ride isn't that bad.

Vietnam has been a first for many travel related things for me. My initial trip into the country was the longest I've been in transit with a total time of 38hrs. After we left Da Lat, T and I took a 24hr train ride up north which was the longest I've ever spent on one vehicle that wasn't a boat. To get to the train we had to take a 4hr bus ride to the coastal city of Nha Trang where I almost got into a physical fight with a motorbike taxi several weeks prior. A friend from home forwarded one of my blog posts about Vietnam to an old high school teacher of mine who it turns out is currently living in Nha Trang with his wife. Though we didn't get along—I got kicked out of his class in fact—we put our differences beside us and had a great time chatting over lunch. It's amazing how small of a world it is.

Boats getting ready to pick people up at Trang An
Boats getting ready to pick people up at Trang An

Our first destination in the north was the industrial city Ninh Binh which acts as a hop off point for many tourists to visit the water caves in the steep mountains of Trang An. Our 3hr tour which involved going through nine caves and visiting one temple was mostly spent waiting in queues in the sun amongst a river of tourists from Hanoi. A 30min tour through one cave would have been enough for me, but seeing all the Vietnamese tourists and all the boats they had ready for them was quite a trip.

The next day T and I went to Hung Yen to visit her friend. T and her friend made lunch which we ate with T's friends parents. During lunch I learned some cultural differences between the north and the south—in particular the drinking etiquette—and learned that T's friend's father had fought in the American war. Many people have asked me how I'm accepted as an American, especially in places that we've been at war with, and I don't think the sentiment could be any better demonstrated than by a man who fought against us inviting me into his home and constantly filling my drink and putting food in my bowl. T's friend's whole family was amazingly generous to me and while the father wasn't more generous than some of the other wonderful people I've met on this trip, his particular background almost brought a tear to my eye during lunch. I've spoken with many people in Vietnam about their feelings toward America and if anything they seem to look up to us for our civil rights and economic structure.

Whole fried tiny birds
Whole fried tiny birds

Dinner was another interesting experience for me but in a different way. T's friend took us out for a local specialty: song bird. Preferring a vegetarian diet and having never been a big fan of seafood I've never selected an animal to be killed so I could eat it. Before dinner T's friend and I went outside the restaurant with our server and she selected two fancy birds from one of six cages all containing different types of birds. Though I didn't personally select the birds I was party to the event and looked a little deeper into the eyes of our cooked dinner. The birds we selected were steamed and halved and preceded by a plate of tiny whole fried birds. I can't say I was brimming with alacrity to bite open their little heads and suck out their brains.

To be honest, the food in the north is way worse than in the center and south of Vietnam. In general it's a lot more bland. It's also a lot harder to come by. On our first day in Ninh Binh T and I honestly spent an hour walking through the heart of the city during the early afternoon and couldn't find a single place to eat. The banh mi and banh bao that were so omnipresent before are now scarcely seen at all. I've now had more eel soup than bowls of pho, including one that looked like they just scooped up a bunch of eels out of a murky swamp and put them in a dish. Every time I worry that traveling is getting stale, that it would take an act of god to impress me, new experiences assure me that I've still got a lot of the world to see.


Where you go?

I was just wandering aimlessly with nothing to do but since you're offering a ride, why not?
I had my mind set on taking a bus but since you're here I guess I'll just pay more.
I may already be in a taxi but I guess I could get out and get into yours.
Since you won't stop hassling me I guess I'll just get into a vehicle with you.
How often does that happen?

I'd like to remind people about the map page which I put a great deal of effort into keeping up to date so you don't have to ask where I am, where that is or where I'm going next. Most of that info is also included in the sidebar of DangerTravels.

Soundtrack: September (Earth, Wind and Fire) [Overlaid with vehicle horns]
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Thanks Da Lat

This sign was posted outside a rest stop bathroom, it says it all
This sign was posted outside a rest stop bathroom, it says it all

The wine turned out to be awful and the strawberries are inconsistent though I learned many are ripe when still white. While searching for good avocados we wound up with a glass of avocado puree, a scoop of local ice cream and a ladle full of coconut cream. The combination was amazing! I rarely go back to the same place to eat while I'm traveling but T and I are planning to return to that stand again before we leave Da Lat. I bought some avocados and strawberry jam, both of which I plan to eat on the exceptional French bread found in Da Lat. The avocados need a day or two yet before they're ready to eat but that will give me time to think of a new way to pile avocado on bread, which is something I'll need to do, having already redefined the physical and socially acceptable limit in Burma with Brad (see photo gallery for evidence. Note: you have to scroll down a bit, it's on the same line as the Bangkok hitchhiking sign).

Soundtrack: You Can't Hurry Love (The Supremes)
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Phun In The Sun

Team Yello W?
Team Yello W?

Things keep drawing me back to Cambodia. Last weekend I hearkened the call of teammates from Bangkok and friends I used to play with six years ago back in Madison and returned to Phnom Penh for their Big Phat Ultimate Frisbee Hat tournament which got a writeup in the local paper. "Hat" refers to the style of tournament where everyone signs up individually and gives the tournament director some information about their abilities and then fair teams are created as if being drawn from a hat.

My team for this tournament was very good and we did almost the exact opposite of how my team in Bangkok did. We came out strong and won our first three games then lost our final game on Saturday to the team that ended up going undefeated and winning the tournament. Sunday I think we were all a bit burnt out and we lost to some teams we'd beaten the day before, but that gave us two byes in a row which allowed us to get our drink on and for me to eat some fried bugs that a teammate gave me. We won our final game quite handedly which I believe put us one place above last. After the tournament a makeshift slip-n-slide was created using beer banners and a hose and people got to do layouts in front of the crowd. It was a good end to the tournament.

Banh hoi, one of the many roll-your-own spring roll style dishes
Banh hoi, one of the many roll-your-own spring roll style dishes

When the weekend was over it was time for me to return to Vietnam where I was hoping to apply for my Chinese visa but which I unsuccessfully tried to do. I met back up with T and the first street food I ate upon arrival in Saigon was none other than the famed pho. The elegantly complex broth was good and it was served with a mighty tower of vegetables which most things in Vietnam seem to be. I've had at least 5 different variety of make-your-own spring rolls including one that came with a royal sampler of vegetables mounded high on a huge round serving dish. The court of vegetables included king lettuce, his ladies queen and princess mint, the joker parsley, high advisor chives and a whole congregation of leafy surfs.

After a full day in Saigon T and I journeyed south to a town in the Mekong Delta in order to go see a national park boasting over 200 types of unique bird species. Getting from the city to the national park proved to be quite a challenge and featured my first-ever failed hitchhiking attempt. After finally arriving at the national park in the early afternoon we came upon a group of local high school students and some monk friends of theirs. Being far away from anywhere tourists often go I'm a celebrity in those parts and they all wanted pictures with me. After taking pictures they invited us to take a boat ride into the park with them and climb an observation tower which promised an unparalleled view of the park.

Me and the crew at U Minh Thuong national park
Me and the crew at U Minh Thuong national park

The tower had great views but unfortunately no animals were about so after taking another round of pictures the high-school students took to playing cards and invited T and me to join them. After a quick game that I didn't really understand but seemed to lose every time, the students gawked over my stubble—a few even reaching out to touch it—and we descended back to the boat. On the way to the ranger station one of the girls picked a water flower and gave it to me. She asked T if we could come over for dinner that night. We said "Yes" and then the monks asked if we'd like to see their pagoda first, which we also agreed to do. The girl that had given me the flower reached into her hand bag and pulled out a red hot chili pepper and handed it to me. I wasn't really sure what to do with it but I took it and said thanks. When I thought no one was looking I took a bite out of it. Someone caught me and all eyes were on me again, not that they'd drifted very far. It was hot and I knew it would be; it was a type of pepper I recognized, one that's local to the area and that I like very much. I knew it wasn't the type of pepper that my friend Matt hands me at a bar on St. Patrick's day and tells me to try.

The group helped us get back to the city, a challenge I don't think either T or I was looking forward to facing on our own. Upon arrival at the edge of town the monks escorted us to their pagoda where we were joined by a gang of street kids who were scattered about playing a variety of games. The pagoda was very nice. The girl who had invited us to dinner and one of her friends gave us a ride back to the girl's house which involved taking a dinky ferry to what I believe to be a small island. The house was very modest featuring two separate rooms and an unattached bathroom shared with the neighbors. We ate outside under the stars beside a big pile of rice on the edge of a river. Dinner was traditional Vietnamese hot pot which is something I'd been hoping to try. A special ingredient in this hot pot was fertilized duck eggs, a local specialty I wasn't hoping to try. Being the honored guest they piled the eggs in my bowl and I ate them like I have everything else on this trip.

The girl that invited us for dinner and gave me the flow(pictured) and pepper
The girl that invited us for dinner and gave me the flow(pictured) and pepper

My tolerance for food has really changed on this trip. When I left I didn't eat any water animals or eggs with runny yokes. While fertilized duck egg and dried squid still give me slight pause for hesitation, things like eel soup, head cheese and 5 different types of snail don't even phase me anymore. I even found the fried bugs to be quite enjoyable though the antennae had a slightly weird texture.

After dinner the girl asked if I like to sing. I said "no, but I will" and either she interpreted or T translated that as "yes" and she quickly rushed back into the house to set up what might be the oldest functioning karaoke machine. I say "functioning" instead of "working" because it only barely worked. Before I knew it I was signing We Wish You A Merry Christmas, one of the only two songs on the machine that had words that weren't all Vietnamese. I later sang the other song with non-Vietnamese words, Feliz Navidad. I felt weird singing both songs in a shack in the Mekong Delta in late February but both the family and the karaoke machine seemed to appreciate it—the machine gave me a score of 100% which only confirms that it was broken. The whole situation reminded me of a funny play I'd seen, right before leaving, that two of my family friends were in. The story features a small town in northern Wisconsin or Minnesota that gets radically changed with the introduction of a karaoke machine at the local bar.

Karaoke set in the traditional Mekong Delta house
Karaoke set in the traditional Mekong Delta house

After everyone had had a chance to sing, the girl, her mother, brother and aunt escorted us off the island and helped us get motorcycle taxis back to our hotel. The national park was a bust insomuch as I didn't see any animals or special plants there, but the experience that arose from it was definitely worth the trouble of getting there. I've said it once and I'll say it again, if you enjoy the journey and the company than the destination isn't all that important. I'm back in Saigon where I plan to spend the weekend and then head with T up north where I'll hopefully apply for my Chinese visa.

Soundtrack: The Bullpen (Dessa)
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Pho'd

Banh canh gio - A Vietnamese soup
Banh canh gio - A Vietnamese soup

Many of the other travelers I've met that have been to Vietnam said all they ate when they were there was pho; what a shame. I haven't eaten pho once since I've been here though I do plan to get some before I leave. I just spent 4 days in the food and ancient capital of Vietnam, a charming city named Hue with delicious feasts for both the stomach and eyes. Vietnam, like every country, has food that varies greatly from region to region so what follows is mostly a report about the cuisine in central Vietnam.

I seem to have moved out of fruit country and into vegetable country. I don't mind the change though I do miss the fruit. They still have fruit here but it's different varieties and unlike the rest of Southeast Asia it's not sold in shallow pyramids on street stands which somehow were never being plowed into by renegade vehicles like in the cartoons and movies despite the statistically large number of automobile accidents.

Bun thit nuong - Lettuce, mint, rice vermicelli, grilled meat and peanut sauce
Bun thit nuong - Lettuce, mint, rice vermicelli, grilled meat and peanut sauce

Vietnamese food pops wish freshness; I feel like it's always spring when I'm here. A heavy use of mint and lime juice add zest and is often paired with fresh lettuce and cucumber which contribute crunch to most of their food and acts as a textural contrast to the soft noodle, rice gluten or bread base of many of their dishes. Sweet vinegar and spicy peppers play a measured but important roll as well. Thin rice cakes accompany many meals like the omnipresent kerupuk of Indonesia.

Banh trang nuong pho mai - featuring a rice cake as the base
Banh trang nuong pho mai - a rice cake with I have no idea what on top

Roadside food stands aren't nearly as common in Vietnam as in other parts of Southeast Asia but delicious food can always be found. Hidden amongst the bustling cross streets of major tourist thoroughfares are narrow alleys leading behind the hotels and restaurants frequented by foreigners. Finding these hidden pathways to magical lands of taste takes a wizards powers or insider knowledge.

The best food in Vietnam is from restaurants that don't have a menu and is eaten while squatting on a tiny stool situated dangerously close to the curb. On my last night in Hue I asked T something that had been on my mind for a while: how do locals know what these restaurants serve? During my last culinary excursion my friend and food expert Loon seemed to know exactly which street stands were selling what for the entire city of Penang. T said that you can usually tell from what the people sitting near the street are eating. Otherwise you have to ask. Most of these restaurants only sell one or two different dishes so the menu isn't long. There seems to be a real benefit from this specialization of labor; each restaurant does one thing and they do it well and when that's what you want to eat, that's where you go.

Oc Buou - Smalls snails in a spicy sauce
Oc Buou - Smalls snails in a spicy sauce

Vietnam seems to have more varieties of macro-brewed beer than any other country I've been to. The vessel of choice here is the can while in the Philippines and Myanmar beer usually comes in large bottles. Thailand and Cambodia on the other hand push small bottles. Beer isn't widely consumed in Indonesia, Malaysia or Brunei being Islamic nations and is too expensive in Singapore for me to give you an accurate report.

Hue was a pleasant change from Da Nang. I think the plethora of parks with statues and people in them made a big difference, as did the weather which reminded me of Wisconsin fall. On our first day there T and I rented bicycles and explored the Forbidden City and a nearby pagoda. The next day we rented a motorbike and traveled to three slightly more distant tombs. The first tomb was situated in a heavily foliated large complex with a pond-verging-on-small-lake. The second tomb was in better condition and built up into the mountains offering a great view from the top. The third tomb was slightly less impressive but also situated in a large complex with a sizable lake and a variety of trees.

Mandarins at Lang Khai Dinh's tomb
Mandarins at Khai Dinh's tomb

I just spent the weekend in Cambodia for another frisbee tournament but now I'm headed back to Ho Chi Minh City(Saigon) to apply for my Chinese visa and meet up with T again. I'm really looking forward to trying the food in southern Vietnam especially since T has been telling me all about her favorite dishes which we plan to try when I get there.

Soundtrack: Substitute (The Who)
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Street Cards

Joker playing card on the street
Joker playing card on the street

After I last wrote I left for Da Nang to give T some personal time with her friends and family and me some time to relax. I had planned to spend 4 days alone in Da Nang and then meet T and go the Hue, the food capitol of Vietnam. I didn't know much about Da Nang but I was pretty sure there wasn't even close to 4 days worth of stuff to do, even including the nearby tourist city of Hoi An, so I was hoping to catch up on some correspondences and website updates and in general just take it easy and recharge.

The place I was hoping to stay in Da Nang was fully booked so I walked to a nearby hotel in search of a room. A man in the lobby that barely spoke English showed me an option. It was a very very nice room and he was asking a reasonable price so I decided to stay. It seemed a bit too good to be true so I had T confirm everything with reception. Yup, everything was fine. I unpacked my stuff and took a nap and was awoken by my phone ringing. It was the manager of the hotel asking when I was checking out. I told him around 9am on the 17th, as I had agreed. I guess there was a misunderstanding and he thought I was checking out at 4pm that night! No wonder the room was so cheap. I went down to talk to him and he was very nice. He agreed to let me stay in the room tonight for the price I had already paid but if I wanted to stay longer it would cost more. He said I could move into a different room for less. He invited me down later that evening for drinks.

A dog with pants on
A dog with pants on

That evening I sat in the hotel lobby with the manager and security guard who had shown me the room, drinking beer. For about 20min straight as I talked to the manager the security guard yelled at me in Vietnamese. I guess he had some egg on his face from the misunderstanding. I didn't feel at fault at all—I had confirmed 3 times, even having my friend call and confirm in Vietnamese—but eventually I said I was sorry and a little while later he let it drop. The manager didn't seem to care or be angry at me at all. The manager and I hit it off well and he started asking about my travels, in particular the women I meet. Very quickly the conversation took a turn that made me uncomfortable. The manager was asking me about which women I thought were the easiest to sleep with and telling me about his own experiences, despite the fact that he had earlier told me that he has a wife and daughter. He spoke about women like objects only there to please him and it made me very unhappy. He would often make a comment then look to me for approval. I hate being in that position. I don't want to insult the person I'm with especially when they have some influence over my wellbeing but I personally don't agree with what they're saying. If the conversation was happening in America I definitely would have said something but being in a foreign culture and with people who can barely understand the simple things I'm saying I didn't feel like launching into a diatribe about womens rights. So I left the situation as soon as I could and checked out the next morning.

Women's right in Vietnam are one thing that upsets me. Women are overtly treated differently then men and I know from talking to Vietnamese women that they're not all happy about it. People here believe in "womens work" and that women need men to protect them and help them make decisions. I've gone on record saying that I don't believe in anything and for the most part that's true—I have no religion and I don't believe in math or science—but I do believe in equal rights for all people.

Lots of folding chairs on a tricycle
Lots of folding chairs on a tricycle

As luck would have it my friends Marius and Max from the tournament in Bangkok by way of Otres beach had arrived in Da Nang that morning so I walked to their hotel. They had a double room and said I could crash with them. We spent the first day exploring Da Nang on foot. We started at the beach which according to Forbes is one of the 10 best on earth. Don't buy the hype, it couldn't hold a candle to Otres. As we walked through the city I saw lots of people playing chines chess—which I've been seeing more of since north Thailand—and solo playing cards randomly laying around.

I've devised a game for anyone exploring Da Nang city on foot. I call it "Street Cards" and to play all you have to do is look for playing cards on the street or sidewalk. If you're playing by yourself, try to mentally collect a whole deck. If you're playing with a partner, try to get higher poker hands. Or one person can get a point for face up cards and one person can get a point for face down cards. There's limitless possibilities. The most common card to find is a joker, followed by the 2 of spades.

Being with Max and Marius is an absolute blast. They know tons of games, including word games that you can play while walking or riding the bus, and have lots of running jokes, many of which I'm now in on. For the duration of our time together in Da Nang we were constantly asking Marius in a news-reporteresque voice to comment on the balloon situation which was prompted on many occasions by seeing an animal balloon escaping to the heavens.

Skyscraper we climbed
Skyscraper we climbed

Many things were closed and Da Nang isn't overrun with tourist attractions so we decided to find our own attraction and climbed a skyscraper that was under construction but uninhabited for Tet. After slipping through a hole in the fence and narrowly avoiding a guard we climbed as high as the unfinished staircase would allow and got a nice view of the city. That night we went back to the hotel room and played card games, drank and enjoyed a game they call "guilty pleasures" where in turn everyone plays a song they enjoy but should feel guilty about(though we almost never actually felt guilty about our tracks).

The next day we went to a nearby ancient city of Hoi An. We knew that riding the public bus there would be a challenge but we were up for it. After boarding the bus the woman came by to collect our money. She asked us for 150,000 Dong each. I knew the price was no more than 15,000 Dong so that's what I handed her. She wouldn't take it. 100,000 she said. I handed her the 15,000. She got to work on Max and Marius. They wouldn't give in either. Eventually she dropped down to 50,000 Dong each but I urged them not to give in. They didn't. She had someone else on the bus give her 50,000 to show that that was the price but she promptly gave it back to them after we refused to take the bait. She got 50,000 Dong from a Japanese tourist going to the Marble Mountains which was half the distance to Hoi An.

"You pay now. You off here" she said. I ignored here. For 15 minutes straight she tapped me on the shoulder and repeated: "You pay now. You off here" and every now and then I'd try to give her the 15,000 which she wouldn't take. "15,000 impossible" she insisted. It's funny how often I seem to do the "impossible" on this trip. Finally she took 20,000 each both Marius and Max but I refused to give in. At one point they actually stopped the bus: "You off here". I refused to move. The bus waited. Eventually the locals on the bus started getting mad and clearly told the woman to stop trying to rip me off and we got moving again. Then she said: "This bus no go to Hoi An" which was an obvious lie since when we got on she said it did and it was also written across the front. She only kept that speech up for 5 minutes. When we finally arrived in Hoi An she took my 15,000 and I got off without a problem. I had won but it was a lot of work. She tried real hard and got very insulted when I wouldn't let her rip me off. It's disappointing that other locals tried to help her scam me. There's a little more than 20,000 Dong to the US Dollar so I wasn't arguing over much money, it's the principle that's important.

The covered bridge, one of Hoi An's main sights
The covered bridge, one of Hoi An's main sights

The first thing we did in Hoi An was get some lunch, during which I learned The English Duck trick which is where if you know that the restaurant doesn't have something you tell the next people to walk in that it's absolutely delicious. We went to the restaurant because they were advertising 3,000 Dong per glass beer, which they didn't have, and two English girls that were there before us told us to try the duck, which they also apparently didn't have. We rented bikes and toured the city and if I had any expectations they would have been let down, but as I didn't and I was with good company I made the most of it.

The bus ride home was exactly the same as the ride there except that the guy collecting money took my 20,000 after about 15 minutes instead of 25. After he took our money he insisted that we all squish into 1 square meter of space despite there being ample standing room in the isle with the locals. Every time he'd leave I'd move back out and then he'd come along and shove me into the corner. One time I didn't budge and when he shoved harder I pushed back with my body. He stepped back, looked real pissed and gave a look of "Oh no you didn't" and frantically garbed 20,000 dong and handed it to me and motioned toward the open door of the moving bus. I verbally and non-verbally said: "Come at me bro" and he stood there for a second then decided better of it and moved on. He didn't bother me again which was a good thing because if one of us was getting off the bus it was gonna be the 40kg, 5 foot Vietnamese guy.

More than one outlet in a double room would have made things safer
More than one outlet in a double room would have made things safer

Get your act together Vietnam. With the most expensive visa in Southeast Asia if you're gonna treat tourists like animals and indignantly try to rip them off, you can't expect many people to go to your country. Other travelers talk, some even have website that few but increasingly more travelers read. Cambodia can get away with stuff like that because they've got Angkor Wat; what do you have? Perhaps it's your communistic attitude where you know that if you all agree to rip tourists off they'll have to pay the price, but really you're only hurting yourself. No one I know is going to get a post card from Vietnam because I refuse to pay 50 cents per card when I know I can get them for 10 cents per card in countries with stronger economies. I get the feeling that you need my money more than my friends and family need the postcards. I'm not sure how you can shift this paradigm but perhaps the government could urge people to be more polite and fair to tourists like Myanmar does with their: "Be kind and take care of tourists" campaign which is posted everywhere in Myanmar in both English and Burmese. T, her friends and family, and some other locals that I've met have been very nice and generous, but all the people that are used to interacting with tourist really leave a sour taste in my mouth.

If you'd like to follow Max and Marius on the rest of their journey check out their blog: Max an Marius's Road to Nowhere

Soundtrack: Stuck In The Middle With You (Stealers Wheel)
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Enter Vietnam

Awesome kid on a motorcycle
Awesome kid on a motorcycle

It's no secret that I prefer to travel without a plan. I don't use guidebooks and I rarely research places in advance. I mostly go on the recommendations of locals and travelers that I meet, or wherever a sign that says "anywhere" while hitchhiking takes me. It happens often that I'm on a boat and I see another traveler and strike up a conversation; they mention they've just come from where I'm headed and instantly volunteer some advice, usually some places I shouldn't miss. I likewise do the same.

Unlike everywhere else I've been on this trip, other travelers didn't seem to want to volunteer information on Vietnam and when they did it was usually the same: the motorbike scene is crazy, the food gets old quickly and the people try to scam you worse than anywhere else. When I'd press for recommendations the same few towns were mentioned. Given all of that I was a bit apprehensive and anxious to go into Vietnam.

As much as I try to avoid it, sometimes I have a looming deadline or destination like being in Thailand for the frisbee tournaments or leaving Indonesia because my visa was running out. After the King's funeral in Cambodia I had decided to go to Vietnam for Tet, their celebration of the lunar new year. During the lunar new year everyone goes back to their home town to see their family so transportation can be expensive and tough to come by and everything is closed for a couple days. Knowing this I decided I needed to find a local family to spend the holiday with and after a couple weeks of searching I finally found one. A nice girl named T on CouchSurfing invited me to central Vietnam to spend Tet with her family.

To make it overland from Phnom Penh, Cambodia to Quang Ngai, Vietnam in time for Tet meant I really had to hustle. On one of my 12+ hour bus rides T sent me a text asking if it was the longest trip I'd taken. I responded "no". Then I got to thinking, perhaps this 39 hour voyage with only a 3 hour break in the middle was the longest trip I've taken so far.

My pack and sign I made to hitchhike to Quang Ngai
My pack and sign I made to hitchhike to Quang Ngai

The Cambodia-Vietnam border crossing was unnecessarily chaotic and unlike anything I'd previously experienced. A 3hr layover in Saigon afforded me just enough time to use an ATM, buy a SIM card, find a bus headed north and grab some delicious food. Hitchhiking is my preferred method of transport and that's how I was expecting to get from Saigon to Quang Ngai but I arrived in Saigon in the middle of town just before dusk and thought better of making an attempt to hitchhike as I knew those factors would make it exceedingly difficult. Also, hitchhiking isn't the best when you have to be somewhere at some time.

I was disappointed to be taking the bus instead of hitchhiking but it turned out to be a very interesting and educational cultural experience. All the direct buses from Saigon to Quang Ngai or further were already full so I had to take a local bus half way and hope to find another bus the rest of the way once I got there. "Local" bus refers to a bus that's usually pretty run down—the one next to the one I boarded in Saigon appeared to be held together in the middle by clear packaging tape—has bench seats and no air conditioning and is usually overcrowded. Both of my local buses broke down at least once and required some fiddling under the hood—which in one case was under my feet—to fix.

Crew from my second bus in Vietnam
Crew from my second bus in Vietnam

Local buses tend to be run by a crew of several men; in the case of my last bus there were five guys at the front doing a variety of tasks. There were two bus drivers who took turns on the long journey. It seems as though the only requirement to drive a bus here is that you're also a mechanic. The man who was driving the bus when I first boarded was the type of guy you wouldn't let into a convenience store in America: no shoes, no shirt and a shady demeanor. He yelled at me in Vietnamese for a while after I boarded and we engaged in a non-verbal conversation but audible soliloquy, something I'd be doing a lot of very soon. Two of the other men at the front took turns standing at the entrance of the bus hanging off of the door that didn't close and yelling at motorbikes that didn't get out of our way quick enough and catcalling women we rode past.

Being the largest vehicles on the road it seems buses here can do whatever they want and they often do, including but not limited to passing people in oncoming traffic and running motorbikes off the road. The only apparent traffic law here is that you can do whatever you want so long as you're honking while you do it. I've experienced crazy driving like this before in Laos and Bolivia but it's been a while and took a bit of getting used to. The fifth man on the bus was in charge of taking people's money and bribing the cops, something we had to do 3 times on one trip—we were stopped 4 times at roadside checkpoints but I think the last time the guy said that we'd already bribed the previous three and they let us go. The act of bribery involved putting what appeared to be the equivalent of $5 in the paperwork for the bus and having the one guy hop off and hand it to the official while the bus idled by and in under a minute the man would hop back on with a slightly lighter copy of the paperwork and we'd be off. Only once did they make our bus stop moving so they could poke their head in quickly at which point they saw me, exchanged some words with the bus driver and let us go.

An interesting aside is that the traffic lights here seem to be more advanced than anywhere I've ever been, with countdown timers on both the green and yellow lights—which makes an awful lot of sense if you think about it—but yet no one outside of the small cities uses them.

Finding a bus heading further north from my middle drop off point proved to be quite a challenge and confirmed that people here do indeed try to rip you off worse than elsewhere. I had one motorbike taxi take me to the wrong bus station—even though we'd both looked at a map and agreed on where it was—and then try to overcharge me. I ended up just leaving his helmet and 1/4th the agreed on price on the ground and walking away. Being unable to find a bus I made a sign and took a taxi to the junction at the edge of town in hopes of hitching a ride. As soon as the taxi let me out he flagged down a local bus and they all but forced me to get on it. As the rest of the bus was already over packed, with people sleeping on the floor in the isle, I got to ride up front with the 5 guys running the bus, one of whom seemed to like me, one who didn't seem to like me, one who seemed to like me too much and the other two seemed indifferent toward me. At one point the guy who didn't seem to like me picked up my Quang Ngai sign and gesturing to see if I still wanted it—which I did in case I needed to use the back later—promptly threw it out the window without waiting for a response.

T's father and some of his impressive orchid collection
T's father and some of his impressive orchid collection

I was left at a gas station at the edge of Quang Ngai around midnight with my cellphone running on fumes. After a motorbike taxi tried to charge me 20 times the standard rate to get to T's house, T and her father came to pick me up. From that point forward, everything got better. T and her entire family are super nice and inviting and showed me tremendous hospitality. T and her two younger siblings both speak English quite well but her parents don't seem to know too many phrases—though I learned her father knew many ways to say "finish your drink" in both English and Vietnamese.

The next few days I was in for a real treat, both literally and figuratively. Unfortunately T's grandfather had passed away 49 days before the lunar new year, but in Vietnamese tradition that is the number of days you wait before having the final and most important ceremony?—other ceremonies are carried out every week for the 7 preceding weeks. In two days I learned more about Vietnamese culture than I probably would have done living here by myself for a year. T explained everything she knew about all the traditions I observed and her whole family was super welcoming and included me in most activities. During all the communal meals I was very privileged to sit at the adult male table which seemed to differ from the kids table and the adult female table only in that copious amounts of alcohol were consumed. Vietnamese culture is one where you never drink alcohol alone so you must always toast someone, or the whole group, before drinking and I was always included in the cheers and usually prompted to finish my drink.

Me with many of the men in T's family at a communal meal
Me with many of the men in T's family at a communal meal

The food I ate over the next couple days was nothing short of spectacular. Not overly complex but bursting with flavor. On my first night here T's uncle asked me out of all the countries I've been to on this trip, which had the best food. At the time I wasn't sure what to say but now I'm confident it's Vietnam. I plan to write a full article about it soon—I'm heading to the food capital of Vietnam in a about a week—but for now I'll just say that most of their food is very delicious and crisp using fresh ingredients and strong flavors.

On the actual day of Tet we woke up early and began a rapid round-robin of celebration, eating and drinking at each member of the family's house in succession and then going to the cemetery to pray for their ancestors. Each house, like the entire city of Quang Ngai was adorned with at least one bonsai'd mai tree and usually a couple root over rock bonsais. We visited somewhere between 7 and 10 houses in just a couple hours where I was in a constant state of acceptance of both food and drink—first cabernet sauvignon, then Johnnie Walker Black, then Heineken, then Jim Beam, then Remy Martin V.S.O.P champagne cognac, then homemade rice wine and finally some shiraz cabernet. As T couldn't join me at the adult male table we had to communicate with body language and the very few phrases we knew in each other's tongue. T's entire family made me feel super included and appreciated and I think they enjoyed having me there as much as I enjoyed being there. Having missed all the family holidays back home it was very nice to spend a large holiday with a family over here. They really made me feel like part of the family, they even gave me lucky money on the morning of Tet.

All the lucky money I received for Tet
All the lucky money I received for Tet

I'm glad I made the journey here for Tet and I'm super happy that I found such a wonderful family to spend the holiday with. The ocean of motorbikes and omnipresence of the food pho aren't as bad as other travelers made them out to be, but the scamming part does seem to be true. T even told me that they scam each other here as much as they do tourists and that didn't really make me feel any better. Since I've been with T I don't think anyone has tried to scam me and people have been nothing but warm and welcoming. I'm really looking forward to spending more time in Vietnam and exploring more of the wonderful cuisine.


In touch
Did you know that sometimes other people post pictures and stories about me on facebook? If you want more stories and pictures you should friend me and like DangerTravels on facebook. Given the way facebook works even if we're friends and you've liked DangerTravels you might miss new posts if you don't check your feed soon enough after I made a new post, which is why you should use the email signup form on the sidebar of Dangertravels.com so you get email notifications when a new post is made.

All that's fine and good for me to communicate to you, but what if you want to communicate to me and the other followers of Dangertravels? Previously you'd have to take the conversation to facebook by liking and/or sharing a link to a post or picture(which is still encouraged) but now you can comment directly on the site using the general comments section. Go ahead, don't be shy, give it a try! Ignore this, it's for a poorly designed validator: 98SCDHV3RQA9

Soundtrack: Vanilla Twilight (Owl City)
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Double Entendre

Drinking buddies in Phnom Penh on the night of the funeral
Drinking buddies in Phnom Penh on the night of the funeral

Apparently the term "double entendre" is an English creation and not something that French or even French-Canadians say and no matter how "we" say it, we're usually pronouncing part of it wrong. French people say "double sens" if you were curious. They're also not impressed by drunk and rowdy English speakers, especially when we do our best job to put on a French accent.

Bangkok burnt me out. I had a great time playing frisbee, partying, making new friends and climbing to new heights, but even days after the tournament all my muscles were sore and I was emotionally drained so I decided to head to the island of Koh Chang for a bit of R&R. A relatively short trip from Bangkok and on the way to Cambodia, Koh Chang is a densely foliated island rimmed with white sand and warm water. If I wasn't loath to use the same soundtrack again I would probably end up using Here I Go Again and Welcome To The Jungle for about half my posts. Speaking of the soundtrack, for legal purposes I don't link to songs but you can easily find them by searching youtube.

Koh Chang beach view
Koh Chang beach view

Koh Chang was nice. In the interest of taking things easy I decided to stay away from the party beach which is where a friend I made in the Philippines was coincidentally staying. It's funny how often travelers cross paths later. While I was on Koh Chang I got an email from one of my teammates from the Bangkok ultimate frisbee tournament that said he was headed to a beach in southern Cambodia for the weekend and invited me and another teammate to join him. It sounded nice and was on my way to Phnom Penh so I left the next morning.

I made it through the Cambodian border without getting scammed once, which is quite a feat(it was exactly like this and this and this). Unfortunately I missed the last connecting bus to Otres beach and had to spend the night in the border town of Koh Kong where I saw what appeared to be an operational gallows and really enjoyed being alone. I got the first bus out of town the next day and met up with my friends in paradise later that afternoon.

Sunset at Otres
Sunset at Otres

I've been to a good deal of beaches in my life and I think Otres was the nicest. Chill atmosphere, glassy water and pure white sand--no rocks, coral or garbage. The waves were minimal and water was a perfect temperature, as was the air in the shade which was not-coincidentally close to cheap drinks. My view on a place is always shaped by the experience I had there and that's often a function of the people I was with. I was at Otres with two teammates from Bangkok and one of their travel companions.

Rob is an amenable and caring man who's speech pattern and eye contact leave you feeling comfortable and calm. Rob takes life easy and studies Khmer and does freelance web development in Phnom Penh while simultaneously attracting ladies with no effort. He gets things done and rises to action when the situation warrants it.

Max and Marius are two sharp witted and jovial English chaps who appear to have a relationship somewhere between that of brothers and an old married couple. Sharks at cards and pool, unbeatable at charades and funny as hell, Marius and Max make any situation more enjoyable. They're currently traveling Southeast Asia for about 4 months.

Rob, Me and Marius on balance beam at Otres
Rob, Me and Marius on balance beam at Otres

Together we made a harmonious quartet(and apparently a good looking boy band) with a perfect balance of fun and responsibility. We spent our days lounging and tossing a disc and occasionally jousting on a partially submerged balance beam. The afternoons and evenings were mostly spent playing cards, shooting pool and drinking. On one particular evening we downed three and a half bottles of rum then decided to go down to the beach to see what was happening. For possibly the first time in my entire life I completely "let go". I ended up passing out in a deck chair and getting woken a little while later by Marius singing songs from The Little Mermaid, which he claims was playing at a nearby bar. We had scheduled a tour out to an island for the next day and we spent a good portion of the morning on the boat sleeping off our hangovers. The island was peaceful and had a very long shallow beach which we took full advantage of for practicing our ultimate layouts.

Me laying out for a disc
Me laying out for a disc

Unfortunately our time of rest and relaxation had to come to an end as I was on a mission to make it back to Phnom Penh for the funeral ceremony of the late King Sihanouk. We arrived the night before the main event and joined back up with my good friend and recent travel companion Brad. The ceremony itself ended up being relatively underwhelming as the crowd wasn't nearly as large and the newly built temple wasn't nearly as burnt as I was expecting. The evening wasn't a loss though, I spent it playing cards, laughing and drinking with my mates and a few stray travelers. I laughed so hard cried, something I've only done a handful of times, the last of which I can't remember. If enjoying the journey takes the sting out of a disappointing destination, keeping and embracing good company brightens even the dimmest event.

Cremation ceremony from a distant rooftop
Cremation ceremony from a distant rooftop

I was held up in Phnom Penh an extra day so I could get my Vietnam visa, something Rob helped me do through a motorbike rental slash visa servicing shop carefully hidden on a main drag in town. Rob also helped me locate and stock up on other supplies I'd need for the rest of my trip including a myriad of items I'd recently lost. On my last night in town we went to a romantic rooftop bar for happy hour drinks whereupon we met a couple other expats who joined us for a communal Indian dinner and then the gang and I had a final series of Uncle Phill-esque, stare-em-in-the-eyes-while-shooting pool. After that and a tower of beer goodbyes were in order, but I don't expect it will be long until I see any of them again. Brad saw me off the next morning and will be returning home in less than two weeks time with my cardboard sign autographed by a famous actor and future prime minister of Burma. Brad was the first of my friends from home to join me in my travels, will you be next? I've had a great time since I last posted and it's been a welcome reprieve from the busy flow of Bangkok and my previous travel and has left me well prepared for my continuing journey. I'm also pleased to report that the responsible-seeming Canadian guys successfully delivered the flash drive to the Burmese monk.

Soundtrack: Unchained Melody (Righteous Brothers) [Khmer acoustic guitar]
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The Ultimate Edge of Thailand

View of Bangkok from the very top of the top of an abandon skyscraper
View of Bangkok from the very top of the top of an abandon skyscraper

I went to Thailand just to play an old favorite game of mine, ultimate frisbee. I started the game with a strong cut over to Bangkok then a flat out sprint all the way down field to Chiang Mai. Being a vagrant I played Wala style which is to say barefoot, as did a few of my teammates. It was a fun crew of mixed talents and backgrounds but unfortunately we had a hard time connecting and the opposing team took half without giving up a point. A long halftime was declared so we partied hard and won the spirit award. After a good stretch it was time to switch sides and head back to Bangkok.

Sign I used to hitchhike to Bangkok
Sign I used to hitchhike to Bangkok

My cheering section stayed at the far end of the field while I stuck out my thumb to signal to my team I was heading back to the starting end-zone. There was still time before the game was set to resume so I climbed a nearby tower to get a better view of the fields. Shortly before the starting pull we switched things up and I took over the captain position on a new team. I also used the halftime to find someone with an extra pair of cleats, which they were nice enough to let me use.

Me on the ledge of the 47th floor of an abandon skyscraper in Bangkok
Me on the ledge of the 47th floor of an abandon skyscraper in Bangkok

Again my team came out slow and lost the first few points. Then a long time out was called and we spent some time talking strategy and more importantly partying and getting to know each other. When the game resumed we were playing like a team. We had good movement and flow and started putting points on the board. Our long streak was eventually broken but we came back and brought the game all the way to a tie. Soft cap was called so we went into sudden death. The other team set up a strong zone defense and I made a poor throw near our end-zone and the other team converted for the win.

My team from the 13th annual Bangkok Hat tournament
My team from the 13th annual Bangkok Hat tournament

Our team walked away with their heads up high; we had played a great game and had a lot of fun. We huddled up and when I asked everyone to give a cheer that reflected how much fun they had they raised their voices and gave a cheer that was surely herd across all six fields and probably the surrounding Bangkok area. After the game another team challenged us to a boat race which we won. We also dominated the competition at a mid-point barrel roll.

Teammate Chris diving over a keg with me close behind
Teammate Chris diving over a keg with me close behind

I left the fields bruised, scraped, burnt and with a huge smile. I had an absolute blast. I met tons of great people, partied really hard, played pretty well—especially during the second half when the level of play really increased—and was on the best hat team of my life. I'm really glad I made the journey back to Thailand just for that.

How to climb an abandon skyscraper

  1. Walk over the garbage pile and climb through a hole in the fence to the abandon parking structure.
  2. Climb to the 5th floor of the parking structure, slip past the sleeping crack head and wait for the advertising employees to leave.
  3. Cross the closed off rickety metal bridge. Be cautious not to wake the crack head or draw attention from the public, otherwise your group might have to split up.
  4. Climb along the ledge and shimmy around the fence. If you wake the crack head, cheese it!
  5. Take the two dilapidated staircases up 50 floors, switching when necessary to avoid obstructions.
  6. When you reach the top, BEWARE OF BEES!
  7. Settle your gut, hold on tight and climb the rebar sticking off the top for an unparalleled view of the city.
  8. Profit
Me climbing around the fence
Me climbing around the fence

The continuing story of the monk

Turns out giving the flash drive for the monk to a tweaky American hopped up on betel nut wasn't such a good idea. The drive never made it to Mandalay. On my last night in Bangkok while drinking at a bar with my German friend who I climbed the abandon skyscraper with and his Thai girlfriend, a couple of very nice Canadian guys overheard me talking about Myanmar(which is amazing since I had totally lost my voice at the tournament) and asked me for some travel advice. They mentioned that they were flying into Mandalay early the next morning. I told them my story about the monk and asked if they'd be willing to help. They said they would. So my German and Thai friends helped me find a USB flash drive at 11:30pm on a Monday night and then I rushed back to my dorm to load the files onto it and then went to the hotel where the Canadians said they were staying and left it at the front desk. With any luck by the time you read this the monk will have a bounty of useful resources for succeeding in his human life.


You my brown eyed girl

You don't know who you are. You don't know about this site. You won't ever read this. You're not A Lady. I didn't know brown eyes could be so beautiful until I saw yours. Looking away was one of the hardest things I've done on this trip. I hope our paths cross again though I doubt they will. You're going where I've been and I'm not going where you're from. Take care.

Soundtrack: The Edge Of Glory (Lady Gaga)
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Myanmar My Child

Three Inle fisherman rowing with their legs
Three Inle fisherman rowing with their legs

Ever since the first time I laid eyes on you you've always returned my smile with an equally genuine gleam. I'm glad I knew you when you were young and just coming into the world. I remember when you got addicted to betel nut. The first time I saw you chewing it I thought you had bloody gums. I found the crimson spit repulsive but the arecoline stimulated you. You started lots of fires: fires to keep warm, fires to cook and fires for no apparent reason.

Mobile betel nut salesman
Mobile betel nut salesman

I'll never forget the trip we took to Inle Lake. It was long but took only a small amount of time. We arrived in the morning, spent a few frigid hours trying to sleep in a monastery and then toured the lake with all its attractions. We watched the fisherman row with their legs, saw people making fabric from lotus and silk, making paper from mulberry, and making silver jewelery. We visited a monastery and a floating island. But before the sun had set it was time for us to leave.

Boat carrying goods and locals in Inle Lake
Boat carrying goods and locals in Inle Lake

You're something special and don't let anyone tell you otherwise. You're down to earth and you're friendly; always welcoming and taking care of others. But you're changing fast and I know the next time I see you you won't be the sweet young adolescent you are now. You're entering into the work world, starting your first job at Starbucks soon. But you'll always have a place in my heart. Take care Myanmar: enjoy the journey to adulthood but don't loose your charm.

Happy ending: Hours before leaving Myanmar I gave a USB thumb drive with the English course material from the Americans in China, a copy of the Rosetta Stone with the first five levels of English, and two audio books about being successful in life and business to an American traveler bound for Mandalay. Assuming all goes well the monk will have some of the best tools available to set him ahead of the game.

Soundtrack: The Way It Is (Bruce Hornsby)
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Six Cent Samusas

Sunset over Bagan
Sunset over Bagan

One of the nice things about hitchhiking is that you can go at your own pace; if you get left at a peaceful junction that happens to have a roadside liquor stand you can enjoy a beer before moving on. Given that we had a sign for Bagan written in Burmese script and signed by one of the most famous actors and the future prime minister of the country, we pretty much had to try hitchhiking. We lucked out and got cheap public transport all the way to the junction outside of town. For the next 12 hours we got rides of various length and stopped to enjoy ourselves a little between each of them until finally arriving in Bagan around .

Me and Brad enjoying some beer at our first stop
Me and Brad enjoying some beer at our first stop

Our last stop was in a small town 35 miles outside of Bagan at around . We started walking for the edge of town when we passed an open-air restaurant that featured a man frying very large pieces of circular dough on a flat iron griddle. At first it looked like pizza but then we saw him peeling off layers. He was making samusa wrappers. After watching him for 5 minutes we pretty much had to try one. They were 2 for 100 kyat which is about 6 cents each. We got 4 and started walking. We hadn't even made it past the restaurant by the time they were gone and decided to go back for more. We ordered 4 more and sat down. Then we opened a beer we had brought with us an ordered 4 more. The last time I was in Southeast Asia one of my biggest regrets was not buying more cheap samusas. I wasn't going to make that mistake again so I ordered 4 more. Then they started closing.

As we were getting up to leave I saw them putting all the extra samusas into a bag. I asked them how much they wanted for the whole bag and they just handed them to me. They wouldn't accept any money for them. I think they liked us for a couple reasons, the first being that we obviously liked their samusas and were probably their best customers of the evening. I think they also liked us because we had convinced everyone that we were planning to walk to Bagan that night since there were no more buses and we were informed by locals that the government prohibits foreigners from spending the night in that city. We told people that we were walking so they would stop offering us taxi rides. Not only would a taxi ride have been exorbitantly expensive but we wouldn't have gotten to meet interesting locals. We even turned down a couple cheap bus rides so we could hitchhike. Remember, it's not about the money. Saying we were walking worked for everybody but the guy Brad called Beetlejuice on account of the betel nut he was chewing. The man was... a character. He was definitely hopped up on something and had decided to sit with us. At one point I think he tried hitting on us. In the end I think the restaurant was glad that we had distracted him for a while.

Sunset in Bagan the second day
Sunset in Bagan the second day

With our bag of samusas in hand we walked to the edge of town and began to wait. Very few cars were passing. Shortly a man from across the street came over to talk to us. As he was approaching I started with "We're fine, thanks" but he responded in very clear English with: "You know, no one here hitchhikes." It caught me completely off guard. No one here even knows what hitchhiking is and we found out there's not even a word for it in Burmese. The man came over to talk to us. Turns out he's a doctor in that little town and was just interested in helping us. He stood with us for 1hr and explained our situation to every car that pulled over until we finally had a ride.

Bagan Temples
Bagan Temples
Bagan
Bagan

We arrived in Bagan somewhere around and wandered the street for at least an hour in search of a place to stay until we finally found a reasonably priced hotel with one vacancy. We slept until breakfast was almost over then took the rest of the day easy. We met a nice German man and decided to rent bikes to go to a nearby temple for sunset. We brought the samusas, several bottles of beer and some chocolate and watched the beautiful sunset over the ancient temple-filled desert of Bagan. All the other tourists left after sundown and we stayed on the temple and drank beer and ate samusas and chocolate under the stars.

Bagan has over 2,000 ancient temples arbitrarily placed in about 40 square kilometers of land. I'm surprised I'd never heard of it before. It's much more beautiful than Angkor Wat in Cambodia in my opinion. Few of the temples are all too spectacular but when taken together they make quite a scene. It's easy to tour Bagan by yourself if you rent bicycles or are avid walkers like the two Americans we met on a temple who teach English in China and gave us resources to send to our monk friend in Mandalay.

Three Burmese dishes
Three Burmese dishes

Brad and I have been taking things easy and that's a very acceptable pace in my opinion. We spent 3 days in Bagan and had plenty of time to explore the temples, drink lots of beer and eat lots of delicious food. Burmese food is really good. Most of the things we've eaten here are heavy on ginger and small shallot-like purple onions. Unfortunately none of the dishes have names or if they do they're not printed in English. I feel like I've finally hit my stride which is good because I'm going to have to pick up the pace for the next month. You'll see.

Small purple onions common in Burmese cuisine
Small purple onions common in Burmese cuisine
Soundtrack: Cuckoo's Nest (Nickel Creek)
3 comments

Dhamma Bums

Two young monks atop Mandalay Hill
Two young monks atop Mandalay Hill

I'm sorry, I brought Brad abruptly into this story without giving you any back story. Brad and I have been friends for around 22 years and he's one of the adults that I respect the most. He's super intelligent, walks his own path, fears little and enjoys life to the fullest. He's well experienced and a very accomplished traveler. He's an old hippy and an old soul. He's traveling Southeast Asia for two and a half months and before he left we'd planned to meet up somewhere. He had gifts from home when I met him in Phnom Penh, Cambodia two weeks ago. We'll probably travel together for another two weeks before going our separate ways. For many reasons I was really looking forward to traveling with Brad and it's been absolutely great having him along. We're great travel companions and even better drinking buddies.

We started our latest adventure by taking it easy, having a couple Myanmar Double Strong brews and watching the world go by. The day thought it could slyly slip out the back but we watched without protest as it faded into the shadows. We figured we should do something but the Royal Palace in Mandalay didn't seem all that great so we figured we'd go to the other main tourist destination and chartered motorbikes to Mandalay Hill.

The entrance to Mandalay Hill
The entrance to Mandalay Hill

"Should we tell them to wait for us at the bottom?" Brad asked. "No" I said. "Dios proveerá [a Spanish term that I learned from my friend Miguel which I think literally translates to 'God will provide']. Two sexy ladies will be waiting with their private car at the top to take us back to our hotel... or theirs." So we paid the bikes and I ran to the top up all 1,729 steps. Why the sprint? I'm on what I call the "Rocky IV workout plan" which involves taking the hard way at every opportunity--no snow blowers, power mowers, escalators or pre-split wood. Also the sun was setting.

The path to the top of Mandalay hill was completely desolate and lined with closed souvenir shops, but when I got to the top it was packed with tourists. It wasn't my scene at all so instead of even looking around I went to go sit with some young monks in a secluded corner. While talking with them I noticed a young adult monk nervously clutching a laptop. I introduced myself to him and he showed me a sheet of paper with an email correspondence on it. He explained that he was trying to take an online English class but was having trouble figuring out how to connect. He needed to be online at 9:30pm that night and asked if I could help him. Of course I agreed. Immediately after the sun set all the tourists disappeared and we had the top to ourselves. He told me about the lost ancient form of Buddhism known as Dhamma.

Our monk friend atop Mandalay Hill
Our monk friend atop Mandalay Hill

Around 6:30pm the monk asked if we would like to eat some traditional Myanmar food and we said yes. We walked down the hill and hired a taxi. At the restaurant the monk ordered a bunch of small dishes of food which were all quite delicious. He didn't eat anything because the monks don't eat at night. He tried to treat us and the taxi driver to dinner but we refused and paid instead. We spent the rest of the night trying to help the monk connect to his online class. The internet and power source in Myanmar simply isn't good enough for online classes at this time so we tried to find him alternative ways to learn English. The big problem is that he has to go out in the world in 5 months but doesn't have any real skills and he's forbidden to study while he's still in the monastery. We did what we could and told him that we'd continue trying in the next couple days. He asked us if we wanted to visit his monastery and tour Mandalay the next day and we told him that we'd love to. He gave me a book on the Buddhas teachings bookmarked with a lottery ticket.

The next day he met us at our hotel and took us all around Mandalay and the surrounding cities, stopping to visit his monastery, the main tourist attractions and a couple spots the tourists don't know about. We rode local transport the whole time. If we had let him he would have paid for everything. The tourist attractions were nothing special in my opinion but going through the rural villages was great. Most of the women and a few of the men here wear a facial cosmetic paste called thanaka which is made from a ground tree bark, has a pleasant fragrance and is supposed to protect against the suns harmful rays and rejuvenate the skin. It's really great the see the unique ways that each person applies the thanaka.

Woman with traditional Burmese face painting
Woman with traditional Burmese face painting
Three girls with thanaka
Three girls with thanaka
Photo by Brad Wernecke
Photo by Brad Wernecke
Three boys, the one on the right has thanaka on
Three boys, the one on the right has thanaka on

Myanmar has really changed my view on monks. They're respected but not as much as I would have expected. They're disciplined but not as much as I would have expected. From what I've learned it's expected for most young boys to become monks but not all of them have their harts in it so they aren't as committed and society has come to acknowledge that and hence doesn't respect people as much simply because they're monks. I've seen monks smoking cigarettes, taking pictures and chewing betel nut and I've met female tourists who said they've been sexually harassed by monks. The monk that showed us around was very nice and had lots of interesting concepts for us to think about. He gave us an audio recording of a Dhamma master speaking about the practice and I'm really looking forward to listening to it when I get the time.

If anyone has any suggestions or solutions for our monk friend please let me know. We're currently trying to get him a copy of Rosetta Stone but that may be a bit difficult. Anything to help him be successful in his "human life" or even put his mind at ease would be greatly appreciated.

Soundtrack: Up On Cripple Creek (The Band)
4 comments

Drive Fast, Take Chances

Ox cart on the way to Mandalay
Ox cart on the way to Mandalay

My friends grandfather always told him to "drive fast and take chances"; his grandfather clearly had things figured out. The main tourist attractions in Burma are grouped into two clusters, one in the north and one in the south and there's very little between them. Due to overland entry restrictions into Burma, Brad and I started out in the south like all other tourists. Unlike other tourists we took the road less traveled to the northern attractions and that has made all the difference.

Had you asked me a year ago to order a list of everything that I've done in my entire life from most likely to least likely, hitchhiking across Burma probably would have been at the bottom. I could have pictured myself swimming with manta rays or getting lost on a mountain, and getting attacked by bees alone in a jungle at night was only a matter of time. I could even have imagined a situation in which I rode a motorbike full-speed down the center of an active airport runway, but I really wouldn't have guessed that I'd be standing on the side of the road in Myanmar holding a cardboard sign with Burmese script on it.

Me on a public bus in Yangon before it was full
Me on a public bus in Yangon before it was full

When hitchhiking, starting from the outside of a city is key. In town people usually aren't going long distances, there's too much happening and worst of all, it's full of taxis. Getting to the edge of town can sometimes be the hardest part of the journey, and for Brad and I this was no exception. We had decided to take a public bus and everything from finding the bus stop to actually boarding the vehicle was a challenge. To give you an idea of what riding a public bus in Burma is like, go to a crowded rock concert and stand about 3 feet/1 meter away from the stage and then bend at the hips and prevent yourself from falling over by supporting your weight on the stage with your arms. See if you can make it 30 minutes.

We eventually arrived near the edge of town and found a suitable stretch of road to stand on: shaded, room for cars to pull over and enough visibility that people could see us from a distance. Unfortunately it was too far into town and suffered from all the problems listed above, especially the harassment of taxis. The three cars that did pull over were willing to take us to the edge of town but only for a price. We learned that most Burmese people can't read Latin script, so if we were gonna have any chance of getting up north by thumb we were gonna need a sign in the local alphabet. Luckily I had come prepared with that.

Me holding a sign that says Bagan in Burmese
Me holding a sign that says Bagan in Burmese

As we were giving up hope and discussing what to do, a van pulled over an a nice young gentleman offered us a ride to the expressway junction 45 minutes north of town, exactly where we were headed. Jackpot! The man didn't speak much English and didn't really understand what we were trying to do, but like many Burmese and Indonesian people he was more than happy to help. Before he dropped us off he gave us his phone number and said to call if we had any troubles. I don't have a local number here since the phone service is outrageously expensive(see below for a pay phone picture), but it was still a nice gesture.

The Yangon-Naypyitaw Expressway was recently built but is rarely traveled as it bypasses most towns between the north and the south and parallels the old expressway. The pavement is nice, the boulevard is landscaped with well-maintained botanicals, there's markers every tenth of a kilometer and there are no streetlights or cops. Around 6pm the guy dropped us off where the two expressways split, just as the sun was setting. He told us that buses go by there all night and that we could catch one there if necessary. We waited for about 20min and the sixth car to pass pulled over to offer us a ride.

The Lexus sedan had 3 men in it already, all of whom spoke English well, 2 of whom were Burmese, but when they conversed amongst themselves they used Japanese. They told us that they were headed to Naypyidaw, the capital of Burma, but that they would take us to the rest area—one of only two on the expressway—115km down the way and that we should have no trouble getting another ride from there. At speeds ranging from 120 to 140kph we made introductions and I explained our plan, seizing the opportunity to increase my Burmese vocabulary and learn all about the country and culture. I asked the man sitting next to us in the back how the three men knew each other and he said that they worked together. I asked what they did and he said to ask his boss who was riding shotgun and hadn't given us his name during the introductions. I asked the man up front what the company did and he let out a rather loud and just slightly maniacal laugh that faded into a sigh. We left the question at that.

At rest stop 115 I thanked the men in English, Burmese and Japanese and then we walked toward the restaurant that they had recommended. We arrived at the outdoor seating area to find all the tables full. As we stood there with our packs on looking around I noticed someone waiving to us from a circular table in the corner; it was the men who had given us a ride. They ordered the dishes they had recommended to me in the car and as we waited and ate we got to talking. The Japanese man from the front seat is the owner of the company the three men worked for and the company is involved in politics. The man who had been driving the car is a professional actor(we confirmed this fact 2 days later when someone at a tourist attraction offered us a postcard with his picture), the family of the guy who was sitting next to us in the back seat owns several ruby and gold mines, and the owner of the company is a multimillionaire who owns constructions companies in Japan and Taiwan and financial companies in Singapore.

Burmese payphone
Burmese payphone

"One of these two men is going to be Prime Minister of Burma in 5 to 10 years" the owner of the company explained with a straight look on his face. Then the man from the back seat of the car said: "Wait just a minute, I will get the owner of this restaurant and instruct her to tell all the servers to listen to everyones conversation and if anyone is going to Bagan, they'll get you a ride. You can stay and drink at any establishment at the rest stop and the owner of this restaurant will come get you when they've found a ride". In approximately 1 minute the owner of the restaurant and 15 servers were standing at attention around our table listening to our friend instructing them on what to do and explaining how interested we are in Burmese culture. The Japanese businessman was watching his employee to see how well he could make connections and pull strings. He seemed impressed.

Immediately after that meeting the owner called all 40 of the servers together and explained the plan. Our friends finished their drinks, paid for the meal and said good bye once more. They said we shouldn't be waiting there long before a server catches wind of a ride. Just before departing I got both potential future prime ministers to sign the back of our cardboard sign. After an hour and a half of waiting it was getting late and becoming evident that no one was on their way to Bagan or if they were they weren't talking about it so we headed back out to the road. After about 45 minutes of waiting an older man and his wife driving a beat-up white pickup truck pulled over to offer us a ride. They weren't going to Bagan but they were going to a town north of it called Mandalay and offered to drop us at the road to Bagan about 4hrs north. We were planning to go Mandalay later on the trip anyway and we didn't have any plans in Bagan so we figured we'd just take the whole ride to Mandalay and hopped in back.

Two minutes down the road all the light from the rest stop had disappeared and only things illuminated were the stars and sparks shooting off the back of the truck. No moon, no taillights. Based on our calculations from counting the mile markers we were going approximately 50kph. I saw a shooting star. Then another and another. I saw 5 shooting stars that night. We were rising in elevation and it was getting cold. Somewhere around 1am the truck broke down. After 15 minutes of tinkering they got it working again. It was during that time that I noticed the man and his wife were sharing a pair of shoes, switching off every couple minutes. As the night progressed and our elevation increased the temperature began to drop.

Brad, post step 6 below
Brad, post step 6 below

How to survive a frigged night in the back of a pickup truck:

  1. Sit on a piece of cardboard to insulate you from the cold metal truck bed.
  2. Change into your warmest cloths and use your longyi as a blanket.
  3. Put your rain coat/poncho on to help protect you from the wind.
  4. Get inside your sleeping sack.
  5. Put your boots on.
  6. Eat chocolate.

At this point you should be wearing your boots, warm cloths and a rain coat inside your sleeping sack while laying on cardboard and munching on chocolate. Getting as close to the cab of the truck will also help keep the wind down not to mention bring you closer to the warmth of the engine.

As I lay in the back of the truck freezing and thinking "Esto es vida, ¡y lo demás es tonteria" I looked over at Brad and saw behind him the big dipper standing mighty and proud on the edge of the horizon. The big dipper is very significant to me. This was the first time on the whole tip I'd seen it and it brought me the comfort and familiarity of home. It also reminded me of someone I love. It's the only constellation I know and I can use it to navigate. It was to be the second in the celestial trifecta that night.

Woman refilling our gas on the side of the road
Woman refilling our gas on the side of the road

Somewhere after our second breakdown around 4:30am a flaming phoenix moon dive-bombed the planet like a slice of ripe cantaloupe falling to earth in it's gamboge granditude. Shortly after sunrise we pulled over so the driver could take a nap. Around 8am we stopped at a roadside hut to get some gas. Around 8:01am we broke down again. When we finally arrived in Mandalay 19hrs after our departure from Yangon the driver pulled into a real gas station where he asked someone that spoke English to ask us where we wanted to be dropped off. I tried to say "anywhere" in Burmese but she didn't seem to get it so we decided that any hotel would do. They ended up dropping us at the backpacker hotel in the middle of town.

Mandalay is quite a bit different than Yangon; it's far more dusty and far less modern. Since Brad and I didn't have any plans or time restraints and barely slept that night, we checked in and pretty much napped the day away. That evening we had a couple Myanmar beers, which in my opinion are the best of the southeast Asian macro brews. That left us primed and ready for the next days adventure, but that's a tale for another time...

Soundtrack: Fast car (Tracy Chapman)
5 comments

Getting to Shwedagon

Woman selling watermelon on The Circular Train in Yangon
Woman selling watermelon on The Circular Train in Yangon

My last two days in Cambodia were spent doing things almost none of which would be appropriate to publish here. Then came the 5th step in my get well program: "Plan a couple jam-packed, stressful days of pure transit where everything is riding on the previous thing working out and the slightest hiccup could make a sane train go mad." We tried to give ourselves a little breathing room by scheduling 7hrs to chill in Bangkok before our plane left, but our 12hr bus ride from Phnom Penh turned into a 19hr bus ride and we found ourselves scrambling upon arrival.

The inside of Wat Phnom
The inside of Wat Phnom

Everything went well with our flight and immigration into Myanmar and providence smiled upon us and delivered us to a nice, affordable hotel in Yangon. We met scores of nice travelers along the way. After 28hrs of pure transit and almost no food or sleep we were more than ready for dinner and bed. The next day we went to a local market where I upgraded my wardrobe to the latest in local mens fashion. We proceeded to ride "The Circular Train" which took us on a non-tourist loop around Yangon and allowed us to get a better feel for the daily life here in the city and afforded me an opportunity to talk to a monk who had a much different demeanor than I was expecting. The sun was setting as our 3 hour tour came to a close so we rushed to the Shwedagon Pagoda and snuck in the side entrance to avoid paying the government fee. The complex was beautiful but overwhelming, much like the grand palace in Bangkok. There were so many things and so much detail that to scrutinize any of it was to study all of it and to take it all in was to go mad. Dinner and drinks with some new friends put a close to a wonderful day.

Me and the shopkeeper that sold me my handbag
Me and the shopkeeper that sold me my handbag

Myanmar at first blush

Yangon is a surprisingly modern city with no litter where almost no one smokes. The people are extremely nice, often smiling and when they speak English they seem to speak it well. As per option 2 of step 1 in my previous post we rolled into town with no hotel reservations (but don't tell the government that) and while trying to get a taxi from the airport a shuttle van from the hotel I was hoping to stay at offered us a ride. When we arrived at the hotel we learned that it was fully booked and without us even asking they called around to local places and found us a nice room within walking distance. So far all the locals have been nothing but friendly and helpful.

There are some quite odd things here that I've never experienced in all my travels. One of them is the half-timezone time difference. Myanmar is 30min behind Thailand and the surrounding countries. They also drive on the wrong side of the road. I've been to countries where they drive on the left side of the road but I've never been to a country where the driver is situated closest to the curb. There are also internet restrictions, some enforced by the local government and some enforced by foreign governments. Due to some BS American OFAC policy I can't access Google Analytics or update things on my android powered phone. As those of you who know me well know, I'm a hardcore nerd and I really love analytics. Luckily I have personal analytics beyond what Google offers and I setup a VPN on my personal server to bypass countries internet restrictions. Unfortunately the internet here is prohibitively slow for routing data through my American server. Oh well, I'll get by for another week or so. My good friend and current travel companion Brad and I are hoping to hitchhike up north tomorrow and there might not be any internet up there at all anyway.

Shwedagon Paya
Shwedagon Paya

Letter to a Lady

I shouldn't have looked into your eyes
That wasn't fair to you, you stood no chance

My eyes evoked a flirty calm
My gaze revealed unquenchable desire

I wanted to get to know you better, and I did
You seemed like a wonderful person, and you were

Your depth cried out for more
Your soft shimmer revealed sadness

I shouldn't have looked into your eyes
That wasn't fair to me, I saw things I wish I hadn't

I'm glad we met
I'm sorry

Thanks to everyone who filled out the survey and liked DangerTravels on facebook. You can still do both if you haven't yet ;) ;)

Soundtrack: Is That You Mo-Dean? (The B-52's)
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How To Fight A Sickness

Typical Southeast Asian sign
Typical Southeast Asian sign

I've been fighting this sickness for a while. I've had nearly every symptom you can have. Many things can make you unwell: bacteria, stress, viruses, imbalances in your body/poor health, fancy food in Manila. Here's how to beat an illness while traveling:

1: Break the cycle

If you're sick because you're stressed and you're stressed because you're sick you've got two ways to break the cycle: 1)Fight the sickness. 2)Fight the stress. The former approach can be accomplished by getting lots of rest, staying hydrated and taking medicine. If that doesn't work you'll need to eliminate the stress. A couple unplanned nights of irresponsible drinking with sexy European women will often do the trick.

2: Change places

Bugs and bacteria are aliens in your body but when traveling you're an alien in their home. Simple solution: go someplace you feel comfortable where the bacteria doesn't. Island hopping in a tropical paradise should do. In keeping with the stress-free approach above it's important not to plan ahead. Even if it's Christmas and everywhere is booked I'm sure a nice guest house will let you sleep in the hammock in the common area or a German girl or two will offer you her bed.

Entrance to a beautiful lagoon in El Nido, Philippines
Entrance to a beautiful lagoon in El Nido, Philippines

3: Get comfortable

If the above hasn't worked and you're still feeling lingering symptoms go somewhere you feel comfortable, somewhere with a friend that has a care package from home with useful supplies. Somewhere with cheap massage where you can buy literally any drug in the pharmacy without a prescription. Somewhere you've been before where you understand the culture. If you haven't gotten a good nights rest in over 2 months you can try some dirt cheap Valium that's available on every street corner.

4: Take your mind off it

Dwelling on your sickness certainly won't make things better but sometimes you just can't take your mind off it. Going to a powerful location like a field where millions of people were killed in the not-too-distant past will be sure to distract you. If the killing field wasn't powerful enough you might be able to find a nearby prison where people were kept, tortured and executed.

Human skulls from the monument at the killing fields in Cambodia
Human skulls from the monument at the killing fields in Cambodia

5: Keep on truckin'

If you're still feeling ill just keep on moving. Go to a faraway land where you don't understand any of the customs and it's very unlikely that there's much in the way of medical assistance. Plan a couple jam-packed, stressful days of pure transit where everything is riding on the previous thing working out and the slightest hiccup could make a sane train go mad. After all, you're not gonna let a stuffy head and sore throat ruin your trip, are you?

Something left behind

When traveling for a long time it's easy to leave things behind. I left my beloved mango knife in Indonesia but it went to a good home. The Dutchman there left his phrase book and the Japanese businessman left his car. The group of Chinese travelers forgot some of their friends in Malaysia. The American man in the Philippines left his power cord and the Frenchman forgot a loaf of bread in Cambodia.

Help me help you by filling out this extremely short and simple survey. I promise it won't take more than a couple minutes. I'm not a doctor. The opinions expressed do not constitute real medical advice.

Soundtrack: Auld Lang Syne
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The Filipino Theme Park

Me on the roof of a jeepney
Me on the roof of a jeepney

I remember my first ride on The Cyclone at Coney Island in New York. I was young, too young. Too small. I wore my stepfather's thick soled shoes so I could get on. It was old and rickety and sat in the shadow if it's dilapidated brother. Memories have a way of getting blown out of proportion, especially when you're young. I recall holding on for dear life.

These days just looking at roller coasters makes me sick; a phrase my father used to say that I never thought I'd understand. After my last blog post I unwittingly entered the largest amusement park I've ever been to. Like a kid in the long car ride intermittently catching glances at the elevated carts of the largest theme rides between buildings and trees as he approaches the park, I watched eagerly through the clouds as the magnificent ridges and valleys of a new park passed beneath me. "I want to go there."

Batad rice terraces
Batad rice terraces

I had heard lots about the park before: it had some of the best rides but they're always trying to rip you off. I had to see for myself. Like most large amusement parks this one was broken up into cities. The first one I visited was a peaceful place made up to look like an old Spanish settlement. Like the thick New York accent at Coney Island I expected to get greeted with unintelligible words, but instead I found that the park operators spoke with a clear Midwest accent.

Charming Vigan City Street
Charming Vigan City Street

I spent my first couple hours getting everything I'd need for the park including the deluxe information access package so I could optimize my short time there. I made a game plan and sprung into action. My next stop was to be a part of the park with the most attractions: haunted hill, cave tour, log flume, climbing wall etc. As sometimes happens in large places like this I got on the wrong tram and friendly park patrons tried to help but only made it worse and I ended up in a part of the park I didn't expect to be in. A place I didn't know anything about. A place packed with people for some reason but where the information kiosk was closed and the tram entrances were all far away.

But I figured it out and eventually made it where I was going. I met some nice people from a different city on the tram. We explored the new part of the park together. We rode lots of the rides. A slip on my part and operator negligence on the climbing wall left me plummeting toward the earth only to be caught a couple feet off the ground and left me dangling eerily close to the hanging coffins of the attraction next door. But I got back on and reached the top. I was having a great time. The steady clicks of the chains and gears were drawing me up higher toward the inevitable big fall. The last drop had left me terrified, wanting to leave the park, wanting to go home. One of those roller coasters that goes under the earth and comes up on the other side. You see it coming, you know you'll be fine but it's engineered to elicit an emotional reaction.

Hanging coffins of Sagada
Hanging coffins of Sagada

My time was running out and I knew I couldn't go on every ride so I rushed to another part of the park. Some other patrons held me up and I missed my tram, I knew wouldn't make it to that section of the park before it closed but I went anyway. When I got there I was surprised to find my friends from the tram earlier trying to talk a park worker into letting them in. I joined with them and after a long hike around the park we were finally at the ancient ruins section. After taking a rest we stripped down to our underwear and had a dip in the magnificent waterfall when no one was looking. But we all had to get moving, there was more of the park to see. So again we parted ways.

Waterfall outside Batad
Waterfall outside Batad

After many security checks I made my way to the park headquarters. Armed guards patrolled every alley. My deluxe information package had proved to be one of those scams. There was no information to be had. I figured the park headquarters could help me out. After many weary hours and visits to the various counters I had tickets for all my future rides. All I had to do was get on the first tram which left from across the park. But I was weary, I'd been running around in the hot sun all day and I'd burnt myself out. "What time is it? Only 1? Wow, I feel like the sun's about to set." But I knew I had to keep going. I'd paid my admission and by golly I was gonna get the most out of this park.

Batad City
Batad City

On my way to the tram a park operator introduced himself to me. He took me around to the various food stands and treated me to more than I could eat. I'd been running around in an excited daze for so long that I had forgotten to eat. He let me use the air conditioned park office to rest for a bit then showed me to the tram.

I treat amusement parks like binge drinking: I hope to have a good time, know I might throw up and expect to be a lot poorer at the end of the night. This theme park was no exception. No sooner than I boarded the tram to take me across the park than I started to feel sick, very sick, in every way. My car was an old rickety one that desperately needed to be upgraded, full of screaming children and their untamed pets. That part of the park ended up being a bust anyway: I bought my ticket, waited in line for a long time, but when they I got to the front of the line they said the ride was closed for the season. C'est la vie I guess. The ride operators were cool and invited me to their employee party. We drank and ate and sang karaoke. I preformed Born to be Wild. Now I'm headed to a more promising part of the park where I think my friends from earlier might be.

My Danish companions and I in a tricycle taxi
My Danish companions and I in a tricycle taxi

What really happened to me in the Philippines? I slept on the streets of the charming Vigan City, an old Spanish settlement and ought a phone plan with data service that's pretty useless; though none of the internet in this country is very good which is part of the reason I haven't posted in a while. A couple bus mix ups left me spending Saturday night alone in the shitty mountain city of Bagaio. I went to the hanging coffins outside the peaceful mountain town of Sagada where I met a couple really nice Danish guys and went rock climbing. I arrived too late in Banaue to catch the jeepney to Batad where there are over 2,000 year old stone walled rice terraces but happened to meet my Danish friends from Sagada and hired a tricycle taxi to take us part of the way and then hiked the rest. We explored Batad and had some adventures getting back to Banaue where I took another long and grueling bus ride to Manila.

After spending an exhausting 5hrs in the Manila airport trying to buy plane and bus tickets, I met up with a local restaurateur and food blogger who treated me to all kinds of delicacies and showed me wonderful hospitality. After resting for the night and enjoying some more food I took a grueling 14hr local bus to Donsol in hopes of swimming with whale sharks. I got terribly sick almost right way on the bus(read: 102.5°F/39.2°C temp, upset stomach, aching body etc). I spent my first day in Donsol fighting the sickness but met some nice Dutch girls who went swimming with whale sharks that day. The next morning when I went we couldn't find any whale sharks but I spent the day relaxing and the evening partying with the locals. Now I'm on my way to Palawan where my Danish friends from Sagada are and which I've heard nothing but good things about.

Sunset from the beach by where I stayed outside of Donsol
Sunset from the beach by where I stayed outside of Donsol

The Philippines has been a mixed bag. Everyone speaks excellent English and seems to be very lively and nice. The cities are wonderful and full of orchids and when I'm in one I feel like I'm on top of the world. Getting places is tough and when I'm in transit I couldn't feel worse. The local airlines don't accept foreign credit cards online and you can't pay for online bookings in person. The bus schedules are erratic and unpublished and the bus stations are often spread across the city. The local buses are overbooked and overflowing with crowing boxes and buckets crammed with chirps. I'm emotionally drained but I'm looking forward to future destinations. Coincidentally well timed emails from loved ones have helped me get by. I've met lots and lots of nice people, many of which I wouldn't be surprised to see again. Manila's huge and packed full of armed guards and security checks but it's not as bad as it was made out to be. I now have plane tickets for the rest of my journey but I've had to compromise and skip the Chocolate Hills and ended up spending more than I would have liked.

Soundtrack: Another Saturday Night (Sam Cooke)
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Beautiful, Brutal, Borneo

My feet on some rocks at Bako National Park
My feet on some rocks at Bako National Park

My journey to Bako started with the exclusive boat company necessary to getting to the national park extorting almost all the cash I had out of me, a trick that perhaps they learned from AirAsia who tried to charge me over $60 to check my bag on the way to Kuching. I arrived in the mid afternoon and spent the rest of the day following Bako's well labeled trails over charming old boardwalks built to handle people who measure their weight in kilograms, not pounds. After a nasty fall down a flight of stairs which seriously bruised my arm and shoulder and broke the skin in several places along my body, I made it to a beautiful cliff overlooking a peaceful beach. That day I saw several wild animals including boars and the hideously ugly proboscis monkey, but unfortunately no otters.

Proboscis monkey sitting in a tree at Bako
Proboscis monkey sitting in a tree

I had heard great things about the night trek in Bako and it was a rare thing I'd never done, but unfortunately they weren't doing it the night I was there due to a ranger meeting and weather and I wouldn't have had the small amount of money to attend it anyway, so I decided to just walk into the jungle myself that night. I was later asked by a friend and doctor from CouchSurfing why I ventured into the jungle alone at night without telling anyone and all I could say was: "Because if I told someone they would have stopped me." And they would have been right in doing so.

Being in the jungle alone at night is a terrifying experience. On my way back to camp it started raining and as soon as it was heavy enough to break the canopy I donned my poncho. No sooner than I'd done so did I hear a buzz and felt a sting. First the arm, then the neck. I flailed wildly, pulled up my hood and started running. I passed a sign that said: "Be ware of bees." Great, thanks, I'll be sure to do that. The rain poncho significantly diffused my headlamp making it very hard to stay on the trail. When I eventually found my way and the buzzing stopped I came upon a very large white porcupine. I froze in my tracks, took off my hood, checked to see if I was going into anaphylactic shock—which I didn't seem to be—and attempted to suck any stingers/venom out of my arm. I made it back to the ranger station and checked with a cook, the only person who was still up, to see if the bees stings were serious. He said they weren't. For the next week the stings burned and itched and I watched as the flesh immediately around them rotted away.

The next day I ignored the rangers recommendations and decided to take the long loop around the park. It was one of the most treacherous treks I've done in my entirely life but provided hours of serene alone time which I well spent processing, thinking and feeling. Kilometers of the trail were over slippery rocks through mountain springs. Nearly the entire path was lined and crossed with large thorned ferns and tiny barbed vines waiting like the invisible tentacles of the unseen jellyfish to send bursts of pain shooting through your limbs. Clearly no one had been on that trail for a while; if it wasn't so well marked I would have turned back many times thinking I'd lost my way. Still I enjoyed it a lot.

The spiked path all over the long loop at Bako
I was constantly ducking under and stepping over these

When it was time to go back to Kuching the evening rains were just beginning and the waves were very high. A lesser man on a larger boat would have been torn apart, but not us, my boat driver was a pro. It made me feel a little better about the exorbitant amount I had paid him.

The next day was perfect. I sold my old netbook getting far more for it than I had expected, shipped some stuff home for a really low price, and met a fantastic girl from Canada who was heading the opposite direction around the world on her slightly shorter trip. But yet I felt down. In fact, the next several days went well and still I felt down. I'm not sure if it was loneliness, the inevitable growing pains of the spurt from adolescence to adulthood or just plain homesickness, but I couldn't shake the feeling. Like Puff's fearless roar I had lost my magic smile.

I was getting antsy to leave Kuching, a city where all the bus stops look like extruded question marks and the all the doors have handles and sings that say "push", but I wasn't particularly excited to go anywhere. I figured once I got moving again things would turn up, and they did. I quickly caught a ride from a guy heading all the way to my final destination and who used to share the same profession as my father but now operates a crane that takes researches from tree to tree at a remote national park near one of my future destinations. He said if I came to his national park I could stay at the ranger station and he would let me go up in the crane which was another activity I've never done and was very excited to do after looking at pictures of the view from the top.

We arrived in Sibu fairly late at night and decided to split a hotel room. We walked around and sat down for some beers outside a Chinese restaurant below our hotel. I had read that Sibu is considered the "wild west of Malaysia" and I could see why—it was both dirty and filthy, with streets lined with prostitutes and bums. That night in the hotel room my friendly driver tried to get too friendly in an unpleasantly similar way to the man in Makassar.

The next day I took a 3 hour boat ride to Kapit. I had low hopes for the destination but had heard good things about the journey. The destination met my expectations and the journey fell far below them. I was promised views of long houses and tropical jungles but what I saw was modern long houses, which look more like low income American housing or cheap motels than traditional domiciles, and shores decimated by logging. The en route entertainment was the movie Avatar, a tragically apropos story about the destruction of natural habitat by corporate greed.

After a cockroach night in the sleepy town of Kapit I saddled up and headed back to Sibu with intentions to leave immediately and head toward Brunei for a hopeful change of pace and spirits. The port in Sibu is also a bus station but only for local buses and no one could tell me which bus went to the "express bus terminal" outside of town. One woman eventually said that if I wait with her for her husband to pick us up that he would drive me to the terminal; so I did. We waited for almost an hour until her husband arrived in a large delivery truck. On the way to the bus terminal her husband asked me what things in Sibu I had seen and I admitted that I hadn't seen anything. He said if I spent the night he would show me around and after thinking about it for a while I decided to stay. First the man drove me around to find a place to stay, which was a little difficult as many of the hotels were already booked for a motorcycle convention. We found a place with rooms that were a little more expensive than I was looking to pay but when I went to check in the man covered the bill(despite my protests)!

That night my new friends took me all over town. We went to a couple night markets where we tried 2-3 foods from 11 stalls in a row. We went to the town square where Christmas trees made from recycled material made by middle school students were on display. The motorcycle convention was across the street so we checked that out as well. The only cool thing there was a guy who had modded his bike to make flames shoot out of the tail pipe and turn blue when he accelerated.

Chickens wrapped in newspaper at the Sibu market
Chickens wrapped in newspaper

We started the next morning with dim sum then went to several more markets and a very nice park which had a boardwalk through monkey filled secondary rain forest. It reminded me a lot of Cherokee Marsh; it even had cool wooden towers to climb. After that we got more food then went to another park which was more reminiscent of Blue Mounds. Finally my new friends dropped me at the bus station and helped me buy a ticket to a place I hadn't planned on going. That couple was so nice! I probably tried as many things in 2 days in Sibu as I did in a week in Penang. The Pasta Barron had been pushed to his limits. I would have left thinking Sibu was a dirty place had they not shown me the shiny other side of the coin.

On my last day in Sibu a smile returned to my face as well as new flesh to my wounds and my spirits started lifting. I'm still not sure what I was so down about but I'm glad to be feeling a bit better. I guess that's just part of a tip like this. You the readers only see a small part of the journey and probably don't hear about as many lows as highs.

Niah Caves
Niah Cave

I spent the next 18hrs riding buses and hitchhiking to Niah National Park which boasts one of the largest caves on earth and the home of the oldest human remains in Southeast Asia. While the cave itself was large and impressive, I enjoyed the rocks and butterflies on the hike to the cave a lot more. In the 1970's Niah caves was harvested for its much prized birds nests and the scaffolding used by the harvesters is still in place. Long poles dangle precarious from the ceiling as a testament to the lengths people will go through to get these nests. The cave is also a prime source of nutrient rich bat guano. You couldn't help but get covered in bird and bat guano as well as green mold but for some reason I enjoyed the experience. Something new I guess.

After Niah it was on the the country of Brunei which is to Borneo as Singapore is to peninsular Malaysia. In fact, Brunei and Singapore have an interesting relationship and their currencies are technically interchangeable. Brunei is a tiny country with not much to see and in one day and one night I probably didn't even see the little it had to offer. I ended up staying in the government run youth hostel which looked more like a military school or Chinese high school. It was a multi-building complex surrounded by a spiked fence and with an old metal playground on the front lawn. The building itself probably could have housed 150 people but that night it only held me and 4 other solo travelers. No one staffed the office and 3 of the other travelers had spent a day and a half getting in. They let me stay in their dorm room for free and we later extended the offer to a newcomer who was having similar trouble getting in.

Field and grand mosque in Brunei
Field and grand mosque in Brunei

There's certain places when traveling that are bound to bring travelers together and that hostel was one of them. It was nice to be in the company of other travelers again if only for a night. I feel like I'm starting to hit my stride and things in the distance are coming into focus. Around new years I plan to meet a good friend in Cambodia and then travel through Myanmar before heading to Bangkok for a frisbee tournament and then Vietnam for the lunar new year. In general Malaysia has been great but I'm excoted to be in the Philippines where I hear the booze is cheap and the cocks fight to the death!

Want more? There are more, larger pictures in the gallery and even more even larger pictures in the dropbox account.

I also just created a special Facebook Page for Danger Travels which you can like to get even more of the action. If you're not already, don't forget to add your email address to the update list using the form in the sidebar.

I want more too! I'd love to make DangerTravels the #1 travel site of 2013 and I need your help. Tell your friends, like my posts, spread the word! Consider it a Hanukkah or early Christmas present.

Soundtrack: N17 (The Saw Doctors)
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A Taste of Malaysia

Beautiful temple in Butterworth, Penang
Beautiful temple in Butterworth, Penang

My first taste of Kuala Lumpur, or as it's locally known KL, was sickening. As if I were trapped in a hyperbolic plane I spent an enraging hour trying to walk away from the main train station and didn't even make it a block. On my last day in the city I found the one and only way to access KL Central by foot. Lack of city planning is something I'm starting to get used to.

The bad taste in my mouth was quickly sweetened by the finest German chocolates that my Japanese friend from Wakatobi/Jakarta greeted me with at the ultra swanky hotel she had booked in the center of KL. After calming down and dropping off my things we took a close but long walk to the Petronas towers to catch a glimpse of them lit up at night.

The Petronas twin towers light up at night
The Petronas twin towers light up at night

The next day we rushed to the American embassy so I could get pages added to my passport before they shut down all services to Americans due to an impending protest. After that we took a tour of the Petronas towers which were designed by an American company but build by two Asian companies, one Korean and the other Japanese. We finished the day with a walking/tasting tour of Little India and Chinatown.In general the food in Malaysia is much like that in Singapore, which is to say more like that in India and China rather than traditional Malay which is very close to Indonesian anyway. That night I finished getting my computer in working order.

The following day we went to an elephant "sanctuary" which I think was incorrectly translated from "sparse zoo" where we met a lovely couple from Brazil who posted a few pictures of Junko and I bathing a baby elephant on their travel blog. After that we went to Batu caves which features and enormous statue of Murugan in front of the 272 steps leading to the cave complex. Later that night we met up with one of Junko's friends and headed back to the Petronas Twin Towers for one last look.

Batu Caves outside of Kuala Lumpur
Batu Caves outside of Kuala Lumpur

Junko went back to Jakarta early the next morning and rather than spend my day relaxing and exploring KL as planned I ended up spending most of the day buying a replacement netbook and wallowing in self pity. Despite both the shops in Singapore that I had paid to diagnose my netbook but who had probably done nothing telling me that it was just a hard drive problem, it seems there was a much larger issue with my netbook. After getting my new computer I met up with a friend of my host in Singapore for a few drinks before just barely making it onto a train to Penang.

The air in Penang initially stung my taste buds when I arrived hungover in a shipping port evocative of New Jersey at 6 in the morning. After a nap under a highway bridge—the most suitable spot I could find—and a 20k walk into town through the blistering sun, I spent the rest of my day unsuccessfully trying to find somewhere that would let me plug my new netbook into the internet so I could download necessary drivers and updates. This might be a good time to point out that apart from KL, Malaysia seems to be entirely devoid of public transportation. Things got better when I met a guy from CouchSurfing named Wei Loon who took me out to dinner at one of his favorite places and later offered to let me stay at his house.

For a week straight I woke up every day and told Loon I was leaving Penang, but every night he convinced me to stay. Penang is considered the food capitol of Malaysia, probably the entire Southeast Asia, and I honestly can't imagine a better guide to the city than Wei Loon. He's clearly very passionate about food and knows all the best places to get all the numerous local specialties. In the morning Loon and I would try several delicious dishes for breakfast, then I would explore Penang on my own, then Loon would pick me up and we'd pretty much spend the whole evening just eating. During the days I was amazed by the beautiful temples that Georgetown and Butterworth had to offer.

Kek Lok Si Temple in Georgetown
Kek Lok Si Temple in Georgetown

I ended up enjoying Penang way more than I ever thought I would and probably more than most people do entirely due to my awesome friend/guide/host Loon. We sang karaoke together, took the cable car up Penang Hill, watched a Chinese parade, played some ping-pong and worked out using the free exercise equipment provided at many Malaysian parks and apartment complexes. Malaysia seems to be very committed to health. In just one day I heard 3 public service announcements offering good health advice that most people probably don't know. One announcement was on the benefits of diaphragmatic breathing(though they didn't call it that) and another was on healthy eating, but not just "eat your fruits and vegetables", things like: avoid processed foods and excess salts. America could learn a thing or two from Malaysia...

Loon and his friend, like most of the locals I've met so far on this trip, were very good at karaoke. Here's a list of songs I picked and sang:

  • I'm Yours - Jason Mraz
  • Part Time Lover - Stevie Wonder
  • Fireflies - Owl City
  • Letting Go (Dutty Love) - Sean Kingston ft. Nicki Minaj
  • Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go - Wham!
  • All The Right Moves - OneRepublic
  • Titanium - David Guetta ft. Sia
  • Piano Man - Billy Joel
  • Magic Moments - Perry Como
  • Call Me Maybe - Carly Rae Jepsen
  • We Are Young - Fun. ft. Janelle Monáe
  • Dynamite - Taio Cruz
  • Umbrella Beach - Owl City
Here are songs I sang but didn't pick:
  • All Out Of Love - Air Supply
  • Glad You Came - The Wanted
  • Bad Day - Daniel Powter
  • Complicated - Avril Lavigne

With the exception of a few songs which I sang mostly because I was completely amazed to see them amongst the pop songs—Perry Como, I'm looking in your direction—I was trying to pick songs that I thought Loon and his friend would know but I managed to fail miserably at. I was under the impression everyone knew Piano Man. They seemed to be making a similar effort and I think they might have been under the impression that all Americans know songs by The Carpenters...

I eventually licked the bittersweet side of departure and hitchhiked most of the way to Langkawi, Malaysia's answer to Lombok's Gili Trawangan and Thailand's Koh Phangan; a college-age party island of Europeans and Australians trying to impress the opposite sex. After a short stay there I hitchhiked back to Penang, had dinner with Loon then spent two days awake as I traveled to Kuching on the Malaysian part of the island of Borneo. From the time I first left Loon in Penang to the time I arrived at the city center in Kuching I had hitched rides with 5 different people and spent more time making signs than holding signs—though the longest waits were in the scorching sun and light rain.

Sarawak government building
Sarawak government building

While wandering sleep-deprived though the streets of Kuching with all my stuff at 9 in the morning searching for a place to stay I met a very nice old Kiwi who showed me around town and helped me find an excellent hostel. While Kuching is the largest city on the entire island of Borneo it has a very relaxing atmosphere and a river cutting it in two with a boardwalk that emotionally nods to the Riverwalk in Milwaukee Wisconsin. Unlike peninsular Malaysia, businesses are open and the rain comes during the day in Sarawak rather than at night. I'd been looking for a peaceful place to decompress and get some work done and unexpectedly Kuching was that place. I had envisioned a tropical island or a small city in the mountains like Luang Prabang in northern Laos but something about Kuching told me it was the place. I made some improvements to the site including the gallery section and the addition of my phone and Skype info on the sidebar. I have the apps "Line" and "WhatsApp" on my phone so if you have a smartphone and you install them you can call or text me for free anytime! This would be a good time to mention Abby Larner who designed the cool logo, awesome business cards and a few icons for the website.

After recharging and getting my new computer set up I met some CouchSurfers and we tossed a disc, went to a night market and hiked to a waterfall where I got to do some really fun rock climbing. During the hike I saw what until recently was the worlds smallest frog. In a couple days I might go see the worlds largest and stinkiest flower. My new friends also took me around to try various Sarawak delights including a couple dishes which I enjoyed juxtaposing with dishes from peninsular Malaysia and Singapore bearing the same name.

Me walking across a fallen tree over a river
Me walking over a river across a fallen tree

My immediate plan is to head up north to a national park called Bako where I was delighted to learn they have several types of wild otter. After that I think I'm going to try to hitchhike to Mulu National Park on the border with Brunei. I'm pretty sure I'll be the only person to ever attempt hitchhiking there since getting there by land from Kuching isn't highly recommended.

Soundtrack: Big Yellow Taxi
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Just Upon A Smile

Beautiful ginger in the Singapore Botanical Gardens
Beautiful ginger in the Singapore Botanical Gardens

Welcome back readers. Our story left off in the remote island chain known locally as Wakatobi where a friendly kid helped me find a hospital and make a call to the US then drove me to the airport the next morning, a 30min ride that would have cost 50,000 rupiah. My plane was due to make three stops on the way to Borneo. Between the first and second stop I met a nice Japanese woman who was in Wakatobi studying climate change but who lives in Jakarta. She offered me a place to stay in Jakarta if I ever needed it which I told her I hoped I never did.

During my second layover I discovered that I couldn't get the flight from Jakarta to Pontianak that I was counting on so I messaged my new friend and met her in the airport then split a cab back to her place. She lived in a high-rise in downtown Jakarta. When we got in the elevator she said: "I'm floor 16" and she meant just that; the entire 16th floor. She had a kitchen with a gas stove and German knives, a spare room with air conditioning and no mosquitoes, a bathroom with a door, regular toilet(this is what I've gotten used to), hot shower and sink + mirror, and access to the swimming pool and jacuzzi on the top floor that are never used but overlook the whole city. It was a very welcome reprieve to the places I'd been staying. I stocked up on supplies for the rest of my trip, including dental floss which I hadn't been able to find anywhere else in Indonesia(believe me I was looking). So far my foreign set of pearly whites was doing better than the local part of my tongue.

I was starting to pick up my pace in the race against the clock. I had a week before my all-you-can-ride coupon in Indonesia expired and there was still a lot of rides I hadn't hit. The first stop was a remote jungle in west Borneo called Gunung Palung national park. The internet didn't have much information on how to get from Pontianak—the closest large city—to the national park, so I figured I'd figure it out when I got there. I was very surprised to find no buses or tour companies or public transport at the Pontianak airport which is about 17k out of town. After eating some food and scouring the net for a bit more information I decided to walk for the main street where I had hoped to thumb a ride. At 9 o'clock at night on the 1km access road a man on a motor bike pulled over and offered me a ride. He asked me where I was staying and I said I didn't know. He made some phone calls then said I could stay with his friend. He took me around the city and stopped to grab some food for us to share.

We hung out that night and talked as much as the language barrier would allow, then his whole group of friends got to work on finding a way for me to get to the jungle. My best option was to take a 12hr overnight ferry the following evening which went down a river that was very reminiscent of the amazon. The next morning my friend showed me around the city then dropped me at the dock. It was not a ferry from WikiTravels or the Lonely Planet. The people on board had no idea what to make of me. They took pictures of me sleeping on my pack on the floor, gave me local alcohol and laughed with me and at me for several hours. Eventually someone that spoke English came forward and I explained my situation to him. He informed me that it was a 2hr motorbike ride from where the ferry dropped off to the national park. He told the other people on the ferry and they broke into a ruckus. The man informed me that they were all trying to decide who would give me a ride! When we arrived a group of 5 people on motorbikes escorted me to the ranger station.

Me and the group on the ferry from Pontianak to Gunung Palung(the person giving the peace sign was named Tarzan)

The ranger station didn't know what to do with me either. The only way to get access to Gunung Palung is with a permit and the only way to get a permit is to go with the only tour company that sells them. Apparently you can't get a permit at the ranger station and the tour company is in a town several hours away. I didn't have time to go to the tour company so again I explained my situation. The rangers made some calls and had someone from the tour company come to meet me. In the meantime they offered me free coffee and tea, took me somewhere to get breakfast and to a local market for me to buy fruit.

The trek in Gunung Palung was easily the most remote trek I've ever taken and likely ever will take. After a couple hours of hiking we left our packs and literally just started bushwhacking through the jungle. When I say "we" I mean me and the "guide" and when I say "guide" I mean paid escort as he wasn't really much of a guide. He didn't speak English, his pack broke instantly(I sewed it back together for him that night), he didn't have necessary supplies such as a flashlight, bug spray/mosquito nets, water etc. Luckily I was carrying easily three times more than him and had all of that stuff and more.

The jungle was eerily devoid of animals. For the first several hours I saw no birds, no mammals and only a few extraordinarily large ants. After making camp and dinner we set back out to see what we could find. Again we saw nothing. We came across some illegal logging and I helped the guide sabotage their operation. On our way back to camp we heard something in a tree so we quickly ran to explore. It was a group of orangutans! We ran closer. They moved. We moved. I cut up my hands on thorny vines as I raced through the thick growth but it didn't matter, I was excited to see the primates leap from tree to tree with seemingly no plan or destination in mind when they sprung into the air.

I later learned that Gunung Palung gets on average one group of visitors per month, the last group had been two months ago, and that most people don't see orangutans—the last several groups hadn't. Luck had smiled it's big primate teeth at me through a beard of thick orange hair, but just as quickly fate showed up with it's buddies, two more tourists! I was so happy to be all alone in the middle of a remote jungle when a woman from Poland and her co-worker from Bali showed up to harsh my mellow. When we parted ways the next afternoon they reported that they hadn't seen any orangutans on their treks. On our way out of the park I spotted another group of orangutans much closer than the previous ones and called to my guide who was a fair bit up the trail talking on his cell phone(yes, he amazingly got reception in the middle of the jungle).

My trip from Gunung Palung to the worlds largest volcanic lake was full of long rides on crowded public transport full of mystified locals with lomaxian stares and sleepless nights and nights spent sleeping in the rain on the roofs of overnight ferry's. Language barriers and long layovers provided me an opportunity to get some long overdue work done—like adding an image gallery and interactive map to my travel site. One layover in particular coincided perfectly with the US presidential election which I followed on my laptop while talking to friends in an airport restaurant which was showing classic cartoons on the plasma displays.

Danau Toba as see from atop Samosir

I had been getting by very well on a smile but Sumatra turned my smile into a grimace. The hawkers were worse than anywhere else and several people tried to rip me off. After spending a night on the shore of Lake Toba I headed for the island of Samosir. For two months I've been looking for a peaceful place to relax and get some work done; somewhere with a slow pace of life, cheap booze and good internet. The city of Tuk Tuk on Samosir was that place.

Without a ticket out of Indonesia I had to cut my time short to go back to Medan. A a day and a half on the island provided me with some time to relax and work but as soon as I arrived the hard drive in my netbook died taking with it my previous days of work. So instead of relaxing and working as I had planned I explored the island with two German girls and while offroading flipped a scooter pinning my left leg. I wasn't seriously injured so I spent the rest of my stay trying to find a way to get out of Indonesia in time.

With a ticket in hand and two days left in country I proceeded to my final destination in Indonesia, a national park by the name Bukit Lawang where I was joined by my Japanese friend from Jakarta. Bukit Lawang is far more accessible than Gunung Palung and used to be an orangutan rehabilitation center so it offers a much higher chance of seeing orangutans but the orangutans are much more used to seeing people. Again luck peeled back it's over-sized lips and revealed a glowing white smile. On our way back to camp, no more than 15min after talking to a German guy who was returning from a 3 day jungle trek where he hadn't seen any orangutans, we came in contact with two mother orangutans and their babies. They came so close that we had to keep moving back so we'd be at a safe distance. It was a much different experience than my trip in Borneo but it was nice and offered my young but myopic camera an opportunity to capture a few memories.

An Orangutan from Bukit Lawang in North Sumatra

I then continued to Singapore which wasn't the rounded corner chrome plated futuristic robot metropolis where the streets are so clean you can see the reflection of your soul that I had envisioned and that perhaps Japan really is. Still, it presented me with an opportunity to get a new hard drive, see a doctor and stock up on a few more odds and ends.

I was looking forward to a place where English is the primary language. While most people speak English, few speak it well and when they do it's with a Malaysian accent but the Queen's diction. This is due I believe to the immense cultural diversity but low assimilation in Singapore. Their language seems to have evolved like the baby of a beautiful caterpillar and horrible frankenbeast metamorphosing into an unintelligible local dialect called Singlish. The automated rail system often suggest you "alight", a word I would be fine never to hear again in my life.

I don't want to know what the punishment for bringing durian on a Singapore subway is...

For such a fine country—owing to the number of things that result in a fine—there are surprisingly few cops. I suspect the policing may be done remotely. When I was on the subway some shady eastern Europeans boarded eating an assortment of nuts and an announcement instantly played over the pa and flashed across the digital displays reminding people not to eat. For a country with a $300 fine for littering there are surprisingly few trash cans but copious amounts of non prescription black rimmed glasses.

Red orchids from the Singapore Botanical Gardens

I spent two jam packed days riding the rails, bustling through crowded shopping malls and exploring city gardens. The "cloud forest" & "flower dome" seemed like ultramodern tourist attractions, the Chinese & Japanese gardens were a bit underwhelming though I did enjoy seeing their large collection of Chinese style bonsai which in my opinion look "ok" from every angle but not "great" from any angle, and the under-hyped botanical garden with it's expansive and breathtaking collection of zingiberales and orchids.

Bonsai from in front of the Chinese garden in Singapore

As my failed expectations got washed down the gutter by the daily rains like the final Singapore Sling that slips from your hand as the imaginary robot police force escorts you from the curb, so did my smile—which would have been out of place there anyway. The low prices, street food vendors and helpful friends from Indonesia were gone. On the whole Singapore reminded me a lot more of Portland or San Fransisco than it did of the Asimovian dreamscape I had envisioned. Perhaps I spent two too many days in Singapore or perhaps I spent one too few.

I'm now in Malaysia where I raced an impending protest to get pages added to my passport. I spent Deepavali in Singapore's Little India and Al-Hijra in Malaysia's two most populus cities—neither of which were that good as a tourist. It's been a continuation of the constantly oscillating roller coaster of events and emotions but you'll have to tune in next time for more details.

Additional photos:
Gunung Palung
Danau Toba
Bukit Lawang
*Singapore Orchids*
*Singapore Zingiberales*
Singapore Bonsai
Singapore

Soundtrack: The First Cut Is the Deepest (Cat Stevens)
6 comments

There was blood

Two lines of water buffalo skulls at a Tana Toraja funeral ceremony
Two lines of water buffalo skulls at a Tana Toraja funeral ceremony

Indonesia is one of the most diverse countries on earth with around 700 languages spanning over 17,500 islands. It's also the county with the largest Muslim population. Each island has an unofficial religion. One thing that unites Indonesia is the presence of motor bikes. On every island in the largest cities and smallest villages you can find refilled bottles of of gasoline for sale in wooden racks lining the roads. If you're on one of the non-Muslim islands the gas is usually in old Absolute Vodka bottles. If you're on a Muslim island the gas is usually in an old water bottle. The gas in Sulawesi is in water bottles.

I found a CouchSurfing host in Makassar last minute and agreed to meet him at the university where he teaches English. I opted for the far more complicated(and it was) but also much cheaper and more authentic transport scheme from the airport. On a sweltering pete-pete I met a very nice local girl who offered to show me around so we exchanged contact info before I got out.

I arrived at the university which looked like it could have been from any of the worst American ghettos. Broken windows, no front doors and hoodlums loitering around. Not my ideal place to wait but I survived until my host came down and dispersed the crowd that had formed around me. The inside of the building looked more like something that was under construction in Chernobyl when the power plant went berserk. I ended up having an impromptu conversation with the English class, then dancing Gangnam style and doing some Party Rock inspired shuffling with them.

The English class from University 45 in Makassar and I

After class my host proceeded to take me on house calls throughout the evening so I could fulfill his private English lessons. Then we went back to his place where he made some very forceful unwarranted sexual advances. Don't worry, I'm fine. That's a nice part about being bigger than almost all the guys here. I reported the host to CS and will continue Couch Surfing. Like the Indian guy from Rinjani—who's son sent me a nice note explaining the cultural difference that might have led to a misunderstanding—I'm not going to let one experience sully my view on a large network like CouchSurfing or the city of Makassar.

After a sleepless night I escaped and I texted the girl form the pete-pete who made good on her offer to show me around and ensured that I tried all of Makassar's specialties. She also helped me find a place to stay and took care of me in general. My departure from Makassar was delayed by the high Muslim holiday of Lebaran Haji which involves the ritual sacrifice of a goat or cow by every family and is done everywhere in the city... in Mosques, in front of banks, on the street etc. At 6am I had already missed the mass prayer but I did see many people carrying around random chunks of meat.

My extra time in Makassar afforded me the opportunity to meet some other nice travelers including a duo from France who I later joined to Tana Toraja, a cultural vain of rare gems in the mineral rich countryside of Indonesia. One of the people from France used to be a professional baker and chocolatier and pointed out the chocolate plant, farmers harvesting and separating the pods and cocoa beans drying. I was told that all of their chocolate is exported but I was able to try a cup of their world famous Arabica coffee which I can't compare to other coffee for you since the only other type I've had has been heavily sweetened Nescafe.

A live pig lashed to the back of a motor bike in Bemo, Tana Toraja

Tana Toraja was full of the unexpected for me, though I've come to expect that. From the comparatively modern and hopping city of Rantepao to the pigs lashed to motor bikes at the market in Bemo to the real authentic funeral ceremony in Lempo to the monsoon that caught me off guard just before my bus back to Makassar. I encourage you to read about the culture of Tana Toraja. At the funeral ceremony we attended there was clear evidence of mass buffalo slaughter, of which we later ate and narrowly escaped getting covered with when the kids carrying the coffin to the rock cave in the hills started slinging raw guts into the procession.

Lempo villages loading a coffin into a rock cave in the mountains of Tana Toraja

At the suggestion of many of my Indonesian friends I left my new French friends who had given me a 2 page list of things to try in France and some chocolate for my journey and headed for the island chain called Wakatobi. Apparently I took the first commercial flight ever to the island and was greeted with camera and video camera wielding paparazzi, all the the islands uniformed officials, and natives in traditional garb rushing up to the plane on the runway like something out of an old movie. They donned me with a sash and whisked me past traditional dancer to a press conference held on the scorching tarmac.

Unlike probably every other commercial airport on earth, no transport was waiting to take me to the only city which was half an hour away on the other side of the island. A guy from the security staff offered to give me a lift so I grabbed my pack and hopped on the back of his motor bike and we took off straight down the center of the runway which we followed to the opposite end where it met up with a completely unsecured access road.

The dearth of information online and difficulty getting to the island was a tipoff that Wakatobi isn't heavily traveled by foreign tourists. Almost no one on the island speaks much English including the one dive shop I could find. I got S.C.U.B.A. certified in Thailand 6 years ago and haven't gone diving or reviewed my information since. I went on two dives in one day and saw sea turtles, a massive color-and-skin-texture-changing cuttlefish, rock fish, lion fish and schooling tuna. I also bled heavily out of my mouth and nose and probably have Middle Ear Barotrauma. In a tiny market on Halloween I found some of the best chocolate of my life which is produced in Indonesia; I bought 3 boxes weighing a total of about 3lbs.

Sunset in Wangi-Wangi, Wakatobi

I've never actually watched The Amazing Race but I find it unlikely that any of the things they have to do are half as complicated as my trip to Wakatobi where there's one airline that makes two flights a week, few people that speak English, little phone service, frequent power outages and getting cash which is necessary for all payments can be very difficult. It was harder than getting out of northern Bolivia was for me and Wakatobi wasn't in the middle of a civil war! Luckily an un-uniformed but likely not undercover policeman helped me out.

It's hard to get by just upon a smile but I'm making it work so far. My next stop is Gunung Palung in Kalimantan on the island of Borneo where I'll hopefully see some wild orangutan before continuing on to Danau Toba in northern Sumatra where I might get another chance to see wild orangutan at Bukit Lawang national park if time permits. After that I think I'll hop to Singapore for a brief bit of ultramodern juxtaposition then Malaysia, Philippines, Vietnam, Myanmar and China. I'm thinking Philippines for Christmas and either Vietnam for Tết or China for the Chinese new year(can't do both of course). These plans are very tentative so don't hold me to em.

Soundtrack: Turn! Turn! Turn! (The Byrds)
3 comments

Taking In The Rays

Me at Mt. Kelimutu at night
Me at Mt. Kelimutu at night

There are times where you shouldn't hitchhike. One of those times is when you arrive at the tip of a peninsula where the main road on the island starts, the only things coming of the ferries are motorbikes and buses and the first town is two hours by car.

The port in Sumbawa was like many of the ones I'd been at in Indonesia with the exception that it was cleaner, dryer and there were less people hawking things. I walked past the first person that tried to sell me a bus ticket—I was more interested in finding someone selling ice cream, bananas or peanut butter; a list I put in order of most likely to least likely for me to find. I could see that I wasn't going to sate my craving so I figured I should get to my next destination as quick as possible in hopes that I might be able to eat something there.

A middle-aged man wearing an over-sized white sweatshirt bearing a Colorado brewpub logo on the back approached me. I hadn't fully explored the port yet and was still trying to size up my options so I kept walking. He walked along side me. I didn't look over at him but I talked in a peaceful voice inquiring about his offer. He could get me on a bus to the other side of the island where I could catch the next ferry to my final destination. After walking for a bit and seeing no other options I began to haggle on the price. He wasn't coming down, something I would later learn is common here in Flores. I eventually got 10% off and gave him my money. He said the next ferry would have a bus and that I could wait in the area to my left.

The building was bright but dirty, modern yet chaotic. Clearly the leftover of a grandiose bus terminal that was stillborn at birth. The first two doorways contained locked glass doors while the third contained nothing but air. I went inside. Scattered rows of slotted aluminum seats on a white tile floor drizzled with something that looked like an uncommon chocolate pudding. I watched as a ferry came into port.

Several buses got off the boat and left the harbor. Eventually there was nothing left. I went out and asked the guy what was up. "Sorry sorry, next one". I wasn't happy. I got my money back and started walking. I didn't know where I was going but my default in situations like this is to just walk in the direction I want to go until something works out. And it did.

As I got to the harbor gate I could see down the road and verify that there was nothing there. I was wearing my batik shirt, the same one I'd been wearing for the last week straight including my journey through the mountains, my batik handbag, and my large pack with cardboard signs strapped to the outside. It was clear from my appearance that I was lost. A guy working the front gate motioned for me to come over. He asked what I was looking for and I told him I where I wanted to go. He motioned for me to sit down on the bench next to his group.

There were several men working the gate, far more than there needed to be. I've found this to be common here in Indonesia. I don't know if it's a way of making more jobs or if they feel they really need that many people or they just feel bad making someone sit there alone. The man I spoke with wore a mulberry wool sweater, dirty dress pants and shoes, and sunglasses that boomed "I'm a cop". He was. The other men were all in uniform, except a guy that was just hanging around. There were two port cops, a federal agent, a coast guard and two officials I couldn't identify.

It's very uncommon to see anyone here in a uniform. The construction workers, traffic cops, bus drivers etc. are all wearing street cloths and are completely indistinguishable from people not working. The men at the gate would stop the occasional vehicle and collect a small amount of money. Sometimes they would thank the driver and sometimes the driver would thank them. Sometimes they wouldn't stop cars and sometimes they would stop but not pay. Most of their time was just spent shooting the shit, or whatever it was they were doing before I came along.

A few of them were interested in talking to me, and with a combination of their English and my Indonesian I gave them the usual wrap: I'm 25, single, have two siblings—one older brother and one younger—I'm from America(people here don't understand The United States, the US or any derivation therein), I've been in Indonesia for 1 month and I have one month left, I've been to Java, Bali and Lombok.

The man who wasn't in a uniform asked me the most questions and the most unusual questions. I think. He spoke very softly and with a stutter so it was often hard to hear him. Eventually I figured out that he was crazy and what he was saying didn't make sense anyway. "Nuh, nuh, n-n-nothingness" I furled my eyebrows: "Nothingness?" His silent eyes looked back for an answer. I smiled and looked nervous, unconsciously mimicking the man. In a forced stutter the cop told him to shut up. The man was just looking for someone to listen to him and the officers were happy to let me play that role until they eventually felt sorry for me. The man continued to try to speak to me so in an offering of peace a port cop rejoined the conversation.

We ran out of things to talk about so I inquired when the bus was coming. "Oh, not till " the port cop said. The coast guard quickly corrected "". The crazy man said "". The cop said "". It was only about at the time so I was resolved to be there for a couple hours at least. I took a frisbee out of my backpack. One of the men knew what it was and made a gesture as if to throw an imaginary disc. The crazy man walked across the street and I tossed it to him.

Much to my surprise he caught it. He threw it back and it quickly hit the asphalt. I fetched it and tossed him one again. He had observed my technique and made a much better throw this time. The local cop came out to join. Soon a new man arrived and wanted to play. I threw a forehand to the crazy guy and everyone was mystified. They all started gesturing how they thought I threw it. I wasn't trying to show off any more than an adult walking down the street shows off by stepping over a crack. The cop tried to throw like me and failed miserably. I walked over and showed him how to do it. The next attempt was much better. We continued to toss until everyone had had their fill.

The cop asked me if I wanted anything to drink—coffee or soda maybe, on him of course. I said no. He offered me tea and I acquiesced. He told the crazy guy to go fetch it. They all made fun of the crazy guy but I sensed something between him and the cop, like they were brothers. I think he worked at a local stand that the officials got free stuff from. He was their personal server.

After I finished my tea I noticed something I hadn't seen before: an old wooden chess set sitting on the bench between the port cop and the coast guard. I think it had been taken out when we were tossing. I motioned to it and asked the cop if he played. He nodded yes and moved over to it. I came to join him. The set was beat up and warped in many places and consisted of pieces from at least three different sets.

White on right. Good the board was oriented properly. When playing with new people, especially foreigners I'm always curious what kind of moves I should try. "Do they know about castling or the oft used en passant?" We drew for sides and I came up black. Good, I'll let him set the pace. He moved a center pawn out one space. Hmm, should I push my pawn two spaces or will that confuse him? I did it anyway, kind of as a test. It didn't phase him. He pushed another pawn one space. I played as normal.

You can tell a lot from the way someone plays chess. I'm not talking about the specific moves they make, I'm talking about the way they make them; the way they take pieces, they way they say check, they way they put their pieces down. My friend was playing a friendly game and I think that's part of the reason I let my guard down. Before I knew it I was in trouble. He was playing well. I wonder if he was lulling me into a false sense of security with the opening moves.

He had forked my queen and shut down most of my board. I was pretty much just reacting. He was closing in when he motioned that he had to run somewhere quickly. A couple minutes later he hadn't come back and the coast guard that had been watching the whole game came and sat down. We agreed the local cop had won and decided to start a new game.

I was black again. A heard of roaving goats walked backward through the gate. No one seemed to notice but me. The coast guard also played a friendly game. Again I lost. He asked if I wanted to play again and having nothing better to do I said yes. We switched colors and I came out strong maintaining tempo throughout most of the game. Finally a victory. The sun had just gone down and someone switched on the lights.

He motioned for another game so again we switched colors. This time he started very aggressively but still friendly—he was serious. The lights flickered through three shades of inadequacy. He dominated the game until castling forfeited tempo and I was able to gain control. I got him in check mate but let him take back a move and we kept playing. Then he returned the favor. I let him take back one more stupid move and then we had a really good game. After a well fought struggle he finally won. Just in time too because my bus finally came and they flagged it down and hurried me on.

Me and the gang from the harbor

On the way to the other end of the island we stopped for dinner and I met 5 other travelers: 2 guys from the Netherlands, a couple from the Czech Republic and another American going on a world trip. I hurriedly gave the American my card and said I hoped we'd meet in Komodo. When I arrived at the port my new friends were waiting to catch the ferry.

The others informed me that you need to take a ferry to Labuan Bajo and from there you can charter a boat to take you to Komodo. Labuan Bajo is on the island of Flores where things are much greener and cleaner than other places I've been in Indonesia. People sweep the area in front of the their business and not only are there trash cans but there's organic waste disposal bins. You also get hassled a lot less as you walk down the street.

My new friends asked if I wanted to split the cost of a boat with them and I said yes. We decided on a 2 day 1 night trip where you live aboard the ship. The first day we went snorkeling at Pink Beach then went trekking on Rinca Island, a desolate mountain jutting up out of the ocean.

The travel agent, tour guide and park ranger all told us that they can't guarantee we'll see Komodo dragons. Of course not; I wouldn't want to go if they could! As soon as we arrived on Rinca we saw 3 dragons hanging out under the ranger station. I figured that's all we'd see so I took the opportunity to observe the lazy prehistoric animals and take some pictures.

Throughout our trek we saw several Komodo Dragons in their natural habitat. Being large reptiles they weren't doing much at that point in the day. We saw the buffalo that the Dragons feed on and at one point a buffalo charged at us chasing us straight toward a dragon! Luckily the dragon got scared by the stampede and took off in the same direction.

After trekking we docked in a harbor to watch massive bats do their daily migration from the island where they sleep to the island where they hunt. After dark we drank most of a case of Bintang we'd brought for the voyage and then went to sleep.

A komodo dragon

The next morning we woke up early and went to Komodo island and saw more Dragons as well as wild deer and boar. We stopped back at Pink Beach for some more snorkeling then went to Manta Point in hopes of seeing some manta rays. Just our luck, we spotted some. With a mask, snorkel and only one flipper—my other having broken at pink beach—I jumped in after them.

There were at least 3 and I was able to keep up with them surprisingly well given my one fin. They were large and majestic. At some point one came directly at me and I thought we were going to collide. We must have spent an hour chasing the beautiful floating wings.

The Komodo trip was just what I needed; a comfortable environment with good friends and just the right blend of excitement and relaxation. Swimming with the mantas was definitely the highlight for me and I think the others.

When we got back to Labuan Bajo we collectively worked on getting to the next destination which we all happened to be heading in. After much ado we chartered a private van to take us to Bajawa where we spent then night and then all went separate ways. The American and I left by public bus the next morning to Moni, a very small town at the foot of Mt. Kelimutu.

We arrived in Moni around and after finding a place to stay we decided to eat some lunch then head up the mountain in hopes of catching the sunset. Most people that go to Kelimutu take a motor bike to the top at 4:30am so they can watch the sunrise. We figured by leaving now we'd have the mountain to ourselves.

Lunch took much longer than expected so we didn't get moving until . The sun was high in the sky and locals told us it was around 3hrs or 10k to the top. We figured we could do it in 2 - 2.5hrs and make sunset. We reached the ranger station at exactly . The guard told us that the mountain closes at 5! We tried begging him to let us just go up for a bit but he said it was still 5k to the top and he wouldn't allow it.

We walked back down the mountain until we were out of site then bushwhacked around the ranger station and back to the road. The vegetation was thick and it was very slow going. We had to crawl at many points. We got back on the road immediately after the ranger station so we decided to just make a run for it. It was definitely another 5k to the top, and even steeper than the previous 10.

We arrived at the summit just after the sun had gone down. The detour at the gate had cost us! It was still bright enough to see without a light so we tried taking some pictures and hung out for a bit to see what it looked like under the waxing half moon. Around we'd had our fill and it was starting to get cold. We were both in shorts and a t-shirt and hadn't brought anything warmer.

On the way down the mountain my phone buzzed in my pocket. It was an alert that my dad had made a comment on my site. It was about not challenging the mountains. I chuckled and kept walking down. The air was perfect. It felt like rain forest, tasted like mountain jungle but caressed your nose with the silky honey vanilla skin of the nights blooming moon flowers. Pockets of lingering warm air helped stave off the cold.

About 7k from Moni a motor bike came by and we flagged it down. The very nice gentleman was willing to give both of us a ride down to town. When we got there he let us off and didn't ask for any money. He then turned his bike around and headed back up the mountain.

It was and we convinced a local restaurant to stay open and quickly make us some food. They also brought us two large beers with ice clinging to the outside. The food wasn't good but we woofed it down anyway because we were so hungry. Planning to go back up the mountain in the morning we went to bed right away.

Mountain Kelimutu

At we were up and almost ready to go. We ran into our Czech friends who had apparently checked into the same hotel and were planning to ascend as well. Two guys on motor bikes picked them up and we said we'd meet them at the top. We waited for our bikes but no one came. So we woke the inn keeper and he said the bikes the Czechs took were for us! He made some calls and eventually two guys came. It was already starting to get light. He told them to drive fast and they did. We made it up the top just after the sun poked up above the mountain.

We took some pictures, walked around and ate some chocolate. We paid the motor bikes to take us back down the mountain, having walked enough yesterday. The air was not so nice. Perhaps it was the must of my motorbike driver or the local cigarette he was smoking, but the air seemed to be of a dry, aged romano cheese. Still, the mountain was beautiful and I was able to see the third, brown colored lake which wasn't visible at night.

After breakfast, a nap, bathing, a walk in the local market and some lunch we were off to our new destinations. My American friend went to Ende to continue his world trip and I hopped a local bus to Maumere in hopes of getting to Makassar. When I arrived in town I learned the first ferry for Makassar isn't until Saturday and it may be booked. I bought a plane ticket and I leave on Wednesday so I've got a day to just chill out.

I went back and added more images to the previous post. If you check my dropbox account then you've already seen these. Speaking of which, see if you can find me in this picture(part of this weeks bonus photos).

If you were wondering about where the soundtracks come from, it's at least one of three places. It's either A)A song that I think fits the post well(like Welcome To The Jungle). B)A song that was common in the time the post is about(like Price Tag). C)A song that was in my head during most of the time the post was about. The song for this post played at least 4 times on my bus ride from Moni to Maumere.

Soundtrack: We're Going to Ibiza (Vengaboys)
2 comments

A Streetcar Named Lombok

Christian, his co-workers and I headed to Gili Nanggu
Christian, his co-workers and I headed to Gili Nanggu

This post if very long and not super well written. If you're not interested in the boring details you can use the preferences to switch to the short version.

The concept of hitchhiking doesn't exist here. That's what my first host told me. She was right. I'm not entirely sure why people ever pick me up. Every single person that's given me a ride has tried to drop me at a bus station, taxi hangout or in some other way arrange transport for me. They can't comprehend that I'm going to try to keep going by hitchhiking. They ask me where I'm going then how I'm getting there and I tell them I'm going to keep traveling how I'm traveling now and they usually don't understand. If they do understand they tell me no one will pick me up. People have been telling me no one will pick me up since I got here. I've yet to wait more than 15min for a ride.

I needed to get from the center of Denpasar to Padang Bai so I could hop a ferry to Lombok. I didn't know what to do on Lombok, all I knew was that several Indonesians had told me to go there. A couple new friends had written things down for me to do in Lombok but I wasn't sure if they were beaches, mountains or food to try. I figured I'd figure it out when I got there--that's been the general plan so far.

I easily hitchhiked to Padang Bai. Three cute girls took me to the edge of town and two young boys picked me up from there. I didn't expect a ride directly to Padang Bai, I figured I'd make it to one of the cities on either side of it. As luck would have it, one of the young men(Christian age 23) was going to Padang Bai so he could catch the ferry too. He offered to take me with him and I accepted. Christian and his friend helped me get through the unnecessary police interrogation at the port and buy a ticket to the ferry.

On the ferry Christian gave me some stuff to help prevent sea sickness. It was well received. He asked me what I was going to do on Lombok and I said I had no plan. He told me he had a little work to do there but that we was going to spend the remainder of his time touring around the island and proceed to list off everything he planned to do; it was exactly what my friends had recommended. He asked if I wanted to join him and I said sure. He asked me where I was staying and I said I didn't know. He offered to let me stay with him and I accepted. He was staying at the nicest hotel in town compliments of his employer.

Christians co-worker picked us up at the port and drove us into town. On the way to town we stopped and had a local specialty for dinner. It was delicious. A little while later we were at the hotel. I love freaking out the norms. There I was, a scraggly backpacker with a cardboard sign that said "anywhere" strapped to the side of his dirty backpack, in the middle of a fancy hotel surrounded by international businessmen in dress cloths. The room was nice. It had a king size bed, AC, free wifi, a hot shower and best of all, no mosquitoes.

Me dressed up as a traditional villager

The free breakfast in the hotel was phenomenal. It was a sumptuous spread of all kinds of local specialties. I ate 4 plates of food and 3 plated of desserts. Christian does marketing for a very large drink manufacturer. He said we'd be exploring the island with some of his co-workers--8 young women who do micro-visits to sell the drink. We packed 10 people and one child in an SUV and left to go explore the island. We went snorkeling at Gili Nanggu.The coral was ok but there was a spectacular dream-coat of tropical fish. After that we went to a traditional village and finally to a beach to watch the sunset. The next afternoon we went to Gili Trawangan(a party island), a lookout point and another beach.

Despite several attempts I hadn't paid for anything. Not for food, not for lodging and not for transportation or entrance fees. I figured we'd just settle up at the end. When the time came to part ways Christian wouldn't accept any money. He had taken me in like a true friend, showed me all around the island and shared all of the local delicacies with me. The food I had on Lombok was by far the best so far.

This account doesn't do a good job of describing the bonding Christian and I did in the 3 short days we spent together. The second night we stayed up in the hotel room until 1:30am talking and sharing some brum(another local spirit) one of his co-workers had given me. When we went separate ways he considered me his brother from America and thanked me deeply for my time. The feeling was mutual.

Christian was the first person to understand that I wanted to hitchhike. So on the day he went home he left me on the side of the road just out of town in a spot with shade and no taxis and where cars could see me from a distance. He had also drawn me a detailed map of the island, listed the places I should put on my signs and told me all the things I need to do during the rest of my time in Indonesia.

Christian and I at an overlook

The only thing left to do on Lombok was climb Mt. Rinjani. A couple picked me up and drove me most of the way there. They were going to the first of the four cities on my list but took me to the second one anyway! Like almost everyone that's picked me up they offered me all kinds of things--chips, red bull, cigarettes, mango etc. My general pattern is to decline the first thing, accept the second thing and decline future things unless I really want or don't want one of the things(for instance cigarettes which I never take and mango which I almost always take). So I wound up with a redbull. I don't usually take caffeine. I don't drink coffee or tea and I only drink soda in mixed drinks. The redbull had surprisingly little effect.

When the couple dropped me off they talked to a supply truck that was going to the base of the mountain. They would let me ride with them. In truck overflowing with goods and people I sat on a bag of peanuts that was literally hanging off the back of the truck, holding on for dear life the whole time. This was the true local ride. This is how the people travel.

A little before they dropped me at the base of the mountain. I didn't really have a plan. I figured I'd find an outfitter, rent a tent and sleeping back, drop some unnecessary things, grab some dinner--I hadn't eaten since breakfast--and be on my way. None of that happened.

There were no outfitters and the information center was closed. There was a map outside the information center so I took some pictures of it and walked to a local roadside stand. There I used all my small money to buy 2 large bottles of water. This left me with 1 large mango, 7 tiny mangoes(half the size of a kiwi), 1 Cup walnuts, 1 Cup peanuts, .3 Cups cashews, 1 bar of Godiva chocolate, 1.5 bags of mini Dove chocolates, 500ml of Brum and 3.5 liters of water.

How I survived Rinjani

Whether or not I want to admit it, part of this trip is about forced introspection. I've got a lot to figure out and I need time alone to think. So far I've been with other people and busy non-stop. I'm sure I could have found some place to stay in the small town but I was ready to be alone. I started walking and quickly passed two restaurants. I stopped in each to try to grab some dinner but both told me they were closed. The first one gave me a rough map--the type you'd find on a place mat--and I took it figuring any map was better than no map. The guy asked me if I was going alone. I said yes. "No guide? No porter?" "No" I told him. I was asked that exact line of questioning easily another 30 times in the next 3 days. "Be careful" he said; another thing I got used to hearing. The map showed only one trail and the guy said to stay on it. Simple enough.

I didn't know much about the mountain other than that people said I should climb it. I'd heard it takes between 2 days 1 night and 5 days 4 nights to climb. My map told me there were three camping areas before the summit--the first(1300m) 2hrs away, the second(1500m) 1hr after that and the third(1800m) an additional hour. The map used time to measure distance. Being from the Midwest of the United States this is something I'm used to. Though I was very hungry I decided to keep walking until it was so dark I needed a light to see. I figured it would be slow going after that and I'd best make time while I could.

20min later the path split. I took the direction that seemed more traveled and led up the mountain. Another 20min later a motor bike was coming down the path so I flagged it down. I was going the wrong way. The guy was nice enough to drive me back to the fork. I had lost 40min of precious light and energy. After dark I stopped for dinner. I ate the large mango, .25C of each of the nuts and a piece of Dove chocolate. Oh, and a children's chewable multivitamin I'd picked up in Denpasar. There's nothing like walking by yourself at night in the mountains to make you feel alone. I had turned off my cellphone before I left so I had no sense of time. Eventually I came to the first camping area. There was a piece of sheet metal with a roof over it. I didn't look like a good place to stay and I had plenty of energy so I kept walking.

An hour or so later I made it to the second camp area. This time it was a concrete slab with a roof over it. 4 locals boys had pitched a tent under the shelter and had a fire of garbage going. I knew it would get colder the higher up I went and I didn't have a tent or sleeping bag so I took of my pack. The boys didn't speak English. I foraged some wood for their fire. They were very impressed--I had to hold myself off a bridge with one hand and harvest it with the other. Wood was very scare here. They offered me some coffee and cigarettes, both of which I declined. I offered them some brum and dove chocolate. They took a piece of chocolate each.

The campsite was filthy and there were no room under the shelter for me to sleep. I sat down on my pack to think. That's when I looked up and noticed the stars. I hadn't really seen stars since I came to Indonesia. I gestured to the guys that I was gonna go look at the stars. I walked a little down the path and laid down in the tall grass. The view was breathtaking. I decided to keep moving.

The stars on one side of the sky were far more numerous than the other so I decided to hike over a ridge that I could barely make out by the starlight so that I'd have a good view of the sky. When the trail got too rough to safely travel at night I bushwhacked to the top of a bluff with a few small trees on it. There I found a small dimple in the earth. I laid down my sleeping sack then took out my mango knife and started to cut the grass which was 5 feet high. I piled 5 inches of grass over my sleeping sack then covered that with my rain poncho. I climbed in with my shorts and t-shirt on and took in the view. Anyone that's climbed Rinjani and slept in a tent: you don't know what you missed.

It got cold and at some point in the night I had to change into longer cloths and pile more grass on my den. I woke up shortly after sunrise, ate just a few nuts and started walking. The goal was to get out of the mountain today so I didn't have to sleep at a high elevation with no sleeping bag again. I started passing groups coming down out of the mountain. They all had porters. It seems the only people walking the mountain in my direction were a couple locals I passed early on.

Before noon I stopped seeing other groups and the slope started getting steep. I could see the summit. Though I was starving I told myself to wait until the top to eat or take any prolonged breaks--it's best to avoid moving when the sun is at it's highest. One hour from the top the clouds got so thick I could only see 5-15 meters. Finally I made it. I demolished the small mangoes, a few nuts and a piece of dove chocolate. I only had 1L of water left. I was careful not to drink before or after eating because doing so reduces the amount of saliva you use and the amount you chew your food and hence the precious nutrients you get out of it.

Though I was weary there was no view to take in and the clouds were starting to get darker so I thought it best to keep hiking. The only problem was that the trail went in 3 different directions. My map only showed one. So I picked the path that looked like it went in the right direction and started descending. I was 20min down the mountain when I started to question the path. Where's all the garbage that was littering the path before? Is that natural erosion or a sign of life? Water wouldn't do that. Then again, in my day I've seen water do things even water wouldn't do. Fuck, the clouds are too thick; I can't see anything. I was starting to reconsider the notion that any map is better than no map.

The decision to turn back is a tough one, especially when you have no energy and you're not exactly sure where back is. It was around this time when I started taking pictures of anything memorable. It was getting cold(even for me). I started seeing stars. "I should take a break" I thought. I've heard hypothermia is a good way to go; you just go to sleep and don't wake up. I wasn't sure if I rested that I'd come back. Suddenly a large piece of earth gave way and I found myself sliding down the mountain with my left leg tucked behind me. I grabbed some tall grass and stopped the fall. I wasn't seriously injured, just some scrapes and strained muscles. For a brief moment there was a small clearing in the clouds and I was able to see some peaks I remembered. Some time later I made it back to a trail.

When I made it back to the top I found the group of locals that I'd passed earlier in the morning. Though I had entered the mountain to be alone I couldn't have been happier to see people. With my knowledge of the name of the town on the other side of the mountain and a little Indonesia I was able to find the right path down the mountain. A couple hours later the clouds broke and I could see I was descending into the caldera. I started passing groups again. Everyone asked: "You alone? No guide? No porter?" Then the final words: "Good luck." It seems I was still at least two days out.

I got to the lake at the base of the caldera an hour or so before dark. There was a group of fishermen and three groups of hikers. This was a designated camping area but the shelter had collapsed and was full of monkeys. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I don't trust monkeys. I was completely out of water and food. In a survival situation it's best to drink whenever you're thirsty--don't save your water. They've found people dead of dehydration with water in their packs. You're gonna get the same net amount of water anyway so you're better off taking it when you still have energy. Plus it's easier to carry in your body than on your back.

A group coming down the mountain had told me of the fishermen and mentioned that they new of a spring they could take me to. I gestured to the fishermen that I needed water and one of them led me to the spring. It was only around 100m away but I found myself having a hard time keeping up, even with no pack. I filled my bottle first. I stood up and the fisherman quickly bent down to fill his bottles. So quickly that he didn't notice me pass out onto a nearby boulder. I came to before he was done and didn't let on that anything had happened.

Back at the lake I tried communicating with everyone there. I told them my situation and one of the groups--I local brother and sister--offered me some biscuits. I took and ate them all immediately. To make the most of the daylight I continued on my way down the trail. 5min later I decided to turn back--the trail wasn't going down and I figured I'd be safer near people. I started asking around, all the tents were full--except the group of Indians. There were only three of them but two tents. A father, his son and his business partner. I talked to the father and he said I could ask his porter if I could stay with him--the porter was already sleeping 3 deep in a tent and clearly didn't want me. The father kept trying to say to him: "He pay dollar". It was clear the father just wanted to lessen his own price or teach me a lesson or both. All I can say from my experience with him is that it doesn't excite me to go to India. That said, the son was very nice and surely would have let me sleep with him if his father wasn't around. Also I don't judge a whole country based on the actions of a few citizens.

With nowhere to stay I immediately began gathering wood. I knew this would be increasingly difficult after dark especially since I had to journey high into the mountain to get it. When twilight came I began building my shelter. It was much slower going this time and probably took over an hour. The grass was shorter and further from my den and cut up my hands as I grabbed it. I put the rain coat directly over my sleeping sack this time which proved to be an improvement. I also put a layer of grass down beneath my sack to insulate me from the ground, provide some cushioning but most of all to cover up the garbage. Building the fire was the last thing I did--I knew the wood would have to last me through the night and I didn't need it for warmth yet. The fire would serve many purposes: keep away insects and predators and provide warmth.

I slept fabulously, never waking of discomfort or cold. The first time I woke up it was on account of large animals rustling in the bushes close to me. I grabbed my headlamp but they were gone. I stoked the fire all through the night taking care not to let it get too large next to my highly flammable den. Each time I arose I was greeted with a stunning new masterpiece the cosmos had painted just for me.

In the base of a volcano it gets totally light before you can see the sun. I had drunk all my water throughout the night so I started the morning with a journey back to the spring. I filled both my 1.5L bottles. On the way back I noticed some fishermen getting out of a steamy river. The night before I'd journeyed to some "hot springs" with the group from India but they weren't very hot or comfortable to be in. I went skinny dipping in these other springs and it was perfect. Very hot and very relaxing. Just what my muscles needed. When I got out I was covered in green scum from the rocks so I dumped the icy spring water over myself to rinse off. The air was still quite cold but it was a refreshing shock to the system.

I journeyed back to the spring to fill my water for a final time then packed up my stuff and headed off. Having no food I had accepted the hunger. Intermittent fasting is healthy(though probably not when you're mountain climbing). As I was leaving the lake I met two local boys headed in the same direction. I asked them if they were going to the other city and they said yes. I decided to follow them to make sure I didn't get lost again. The older boy--Dikka--had a small backpack with little in it. The younger one carried just a sash. It was hard for me to keep up. I crested a peak and found them waiting for me. They motioned for me to take off my pack and sit down so I did. Then some more boys joined us. Then two old women and two old men. No one was carrying more than a light backpack. It was clear that they were all a group. Dikka took out some sucking candy and gave it to the group. He motioned for me to take some so I did.

A view of Mt. Rinjani from a mountain pass

We moved as a unit all through the mountain. At the top of the other side of the caldera we stopped to make an offering to the gods. A few times the boys gestured at the water I carried on the side of my pack and I took it out and handed it to them. They didn't drink much. I gestured for them to drink more but they wouldn't. A little way down the other side we stopped for another break. One of the old women took out a small bag of crackers for the group. I guess someone at the lake had told them I didn't have any food. The old women kept hitting my arm and gesturing for me to take some crackers until I finally did. They had very little for all of them so I felt bad taking any of what they had. I reached deep in my bag and pulled out the full bag of Dove chocolates and threw it to Dikka to give to the group. The boys each took a couple pieces. One of the old men spit his piece out so I offered him some water which he gladly took. They gave me back the bag with about 1/3 of the chocolate in it and some more crackers and motioned for me to put it back in my pack.

Further down the mountain we stopped again. The boys all went in separate directions and I deduced they were looking for wood. A few came back empty handed so I went out to search. I found some and came back. They had already started a small fire for cooking. When they poured what little water they had into the pot they looked disappointed so I gave them the rest of mine. They used most of it and gestured for me to drink the rest and that there was another spring later on. Lunch was leftover rice and very spicy fish. I was given about 2 cups of rice and a half tablespoon of fish--the largest portion. They also gave me some coffee that they'd made with the water. I don't usually drink coffee but I made an exception. We were still very high up and several of the boys were shivering. It was clear they didn't have any other cloths. I took out my fleece and threw it to one of them and my sleeping sack to another. They gladly took both of them and wore them all the way down the mountain.

As soon as we got out of the clouds I noticed Dikka put on a face mask. I didn't smell any gas but many deadly gases have no scent(you know they add an odor to the gas that comes into your house?) I took off my bandanna and tied it around my face bandito style. The terrain was getting very loose and I slipped a few times. One of the boys offered to carry my pack. I offered to carry the little boy as well and we kept on walking. We started passing groups of people again. As usual I would great the porter with "Good morning/afternoon/evening. How are you?" in Indonesian. My new family got a huge kick out of this and gave me the thumbs up each time. Any time we saw white people they would gesture at me. At first I thought they wanted me to speak English to them but I later learned they were curious about what I thought of all the white women.

The last 5 or so hours were spent walking through a tropical jungle. I noticed Dikka and the next boy collecting a wispy green moss that was clinging from the trees as if it had been blown there by the wind. I gestured the question of what it was for and all I could deduce was that they either scrub with it when bathing, use it to relieve headaches or make a soup with it. The best moss seemed to grow high up and being the tallest person in the group I began collecting the stuff everyone else couldn't reach and silently handing it to the littlest boy who walked right behind me and would quickly grab it from my outstretched hand below my pack.

Eventually we reached the park gate. The only thing there was a small shop. The boys and I had reached it first so we sat down to wait for the elders. Dikka ordered me a sprite and some banana fritters. One of the boys gestured to ask if he could keep my sleeping sack. It made me feel bad but I gestured no. Then he pointed at my bandanna. I took it off and gave it to him. He quickly tied it around his face like I had done in the mountain. He was very happy to have it. When the shop keeper came to collect money I slyly took mine out and one of the boys spotted me and aggressively gestured to put it back.

It was almost exactly 2 days from when I'd left and I was eager to get somewhere to rest. The boys got up and started down the path and gestured for me to follow. 1min later the lead boy had wandered off the path and the second was waiting for him. He gestured for me to keep going so I did. A minute later I looked back and they were gone. I waited. No one came. I kept walking slowly--they never caught up. Perhaps that was their way of avoiding a sad goodbye. I think they might have lived in the mountain and weren't going into town. Each step got harder as the weight of my heart increased. I've never felt so alone in my life. As soon as this family had come into my life they had gone. I didn't get to say thank you. I didn't get to say goodbye.

An hour later I was out of the mountain and in the town. I saw all the outfitters and home stays. I had started at the wrong end. I was still quite high up and all the closed shops and abandon restaurants hardly seemed like a town so I started following the road out of the mountain. It started to rain. and naked boys gathered in the street to play soccer. I put my rain poncho on and kept going. An hour and a half later there was still no town and it was getting quite dark. I passed through a small village where a gang of young boys made me feel uncomfortable though I didn't show it.

Though it was completely dark I kept walking without bothering to take out my headlamp. A man on a motor bike came by. I could tell he was different than all the others that rode up and asked where I was going. In hindsight I think it was the way he was dressed, the way he pulled up, the way he spoke and the fact that he was wearing a helmet that made me trust him but in the moment it was just my gut. He said there was no town at the base of the mountain and it was very dangerous in these parts. He said I should go back up to the "town" I'd passed 7k ago. He said there were home stays there, only $50. He said he'd even call me a ride if I wanted. I didn't want. I'm not sure why but I just really didn't want to stay in that town. Perhaps it was admitting defeat, I'm not sure. He said he was worried if I kept walking. Then he told me I could come stay with his brother in the little village I'd just passed. He was staying there the night. He spoke very poor English but was trying to gesture to me that it wasn't like a home stay. I tried to gesture to him that I had just spent two nights sleeping in grass dens in the mountain. He didn't understand.

He suggested that maybe I offer his brother $5 and that seemed reasonable to me so I got on his motor bike and he took me home. It was a very traditional house. Two rooms of thatched reed with a bed/floor-kitchen in one room and a mat in the other. Livestock behind the house. I was just in time for dinner. We ate communally on the floor with our hands--something I've grown accustomed to doing. It was very spicy fish and lots of rice.

The traditional house I stayed in

After dinner he asked me if I wanted to bathe and I said yes. We got on his motor bike and drove to a small empty structure that looked kind of like a mosque. Then he gestured to the channel that was in front of it. We were going to bathe in a roadside aqueduct in the middle of town. I was so tired I could barely scale the banks. When I went to bed I realized I was in so much pain I could hardly sleep. Just laying down was excruciating. I woke up to Islamic prayers and roosters out back. I couldn't bend my knees and most of my body was tender to the touch. We had breakfast--more spicy fish--and then he took me to his fathers farm 7k away.

When we got there his father and an old woman were shaving and drying tobacco. He gave me a tour of the farm. They grew rice, beans, tobacco, cotton and had all nature of livestock and fish. He explained that he was buying the farm from his father for $700. Then he climbed a palm tree and knocked down 4 coconuts. He cut one open and gave it to me to drink. I did. Then he brilliantly sliced off a piece of the outer hull of the coconut and handed it to me to use as a spoon to scoop out the flesh. It worked beautifully. Then he carved the other three into slim balls with handles for easy carying and put them in a sack.

He had told me the night before that the angkot to the ferry for Sumbowa leaves at 9am. We got back from his farm at 9:15am. I was bummed but tried not to show it. There was literally nothing to do in this village. If people weren't in the fields they were just sitting around. That's not my style and I'd already gestured everything I could think of to everyone there. He said the next angkot wasn't until 6pm. C'est le vie. 2hrs later he told me there was another one passing through that could take me. He clearly had flagged it down. I quickly grabbed my stuff, said good by to the family and started off. He walked me to the angkot. He wasn't gonna ask for any money. I took out $10 and gave it to him. He reluctantly accepted but I insisted. He told me how much to pay the driver and the ferry so I wouldn't get ripped off. Then we said good bye and I was off.

While on Lombok I got put up in the nicest hotel in town, a personal tour of the island, adopted/saved by a mountain family and taken in by a villager. If chance favors the prepared, adventure it seems, favors the underprepared.

Soundtrack: Here I Go Again (Whitesnake)
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Bali: A Love Letter

Steep, terraced rice patty
Steep, terraced rice patty

This is actually a breakup letter, but what's the difference? Regardless we're done now. I'm leaving and I'm never coming back. Well, maybe someday, but for now I need to see other people and I think you should too. Forget about that though, this is about the time we spent together.

Things started out rough. Fate brought us together and at first I didn't like you. I wanted to leave but I also wanted to meet the rest of your family. I liked your older brother Java. You kept me here with threats of exile, so I stayed. I got to know you. And slowly you grew on me.

Our relationship got abusive when you thrashed my body against the rocky coral shores of your heart. You lashed my pale white skin with the whips of your scorching sun. But I gave you another chance. I tanned. In the end I think it was your friends that convinced me to stay. You have a wonderful group of friends that love you very much.

Blue Point beach in Bali

Your friends urged me to get to know you better, they even helped me explore your body(kinky). We ran our feet through your soft sandy skin as we got lost in your shimmering blue eyes, the color of the sea. We explored your temples and hiked your steep terraced rice patties.

I hate when people play games in a relationship but I couldn't resist a little ultimate frisbee with the Bali Bules. Tucked behind a monkey forest a small group of expatriates gathered to play on a dusty field and like the rest of your friends they greeted me with open arms.

The oldest temple in Bali

Your friends have a good taste in music. Together we enjoyed live jazz and sang karaoke. That night I was Under Pressure, but I rocked it like Dynamite so now I'm A Believer. Your friends have wonderful voices and know how to party and chill. We had potluck dinners, drank arak 'till bar time and crashed on beanbag chairs on the beach.

You know the way to a mans heart is through his stomach and you exploited that fact, filling me to the gills with new delights and ripe mangoes. I even got a chance to treat your friends to dinner, making a sumptuous meal of Mexican food and Nutella cheese cake.

And then you released me. You told me I was free to go. I know you didn't want me to leave but you loved me enough to know that that was best. And I wish you the best too. I think you have a bright future. Keep in touch maybe we'll share stories over a Bintang some time.

Fare well,
Beau

Soundtrack: Ramblin' Man (Allman Brothers)
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The Good, The Bad and Bali

The thing about hitchhiking with a sign that says "Anywhere" is that you never know where you'll end up. Our first several days in Bali were mostly spent trying to get away from wherever we were. At one point we had to ask where we were. Asking where you are is like a time traveler asking the date, people usually don't get the question the first time. After all, how did you get there if you didn't know where there was?

Eventually we made it to the south part of the island which we learned is where everyone is talking about when they talk about Bali. The beaches here are the best we've seen so far but there's also the highest number of tourists.

The first night in Denpasar we went to a full moon festival. It was like most festivals around the world—a center stage surrounded by concession booths. The music was mostly reggae which I was a bit surprised by. After the festival ended we went to a night club in the tourist district. It was a 4 level disco with a variety of things on each level, but lots of pop music and white people everywhere.

You'll notice a lack of pictures in this post. That's because someone stole my camera at the night club. I left it in my host's motor bike to keep it safe and when we got back it was gone with all the pictures except the ones in my dropbox account.

Pictures never capture a moment perfectly. They can't be used to make other people feel what you were feeling when you took the photo. But pictures can bring back memories. Before I left for this trip I got rid of almost all my possessions. In doing so I went through a lot of old stuff. I found a lot of old pictures that instantly brought back memories. Some of them made me cry; tears of joy and tears of sorrow. The old pictures were among the few things I kept.

The next day we climbed Mt. Batur. From the bottom it looked like an old soft mountain, from the top it was a jagged edge looking down into an active caldera. The clouds were filtering the sun perfectly on the ridge, as if it had been lined with gold. I would have taken a picture but it wouldn't have done it justice. The top of this mountain was especially rewarding since 15min from the top a Hungarian I was with and I decided to race. Man, I'm out of shape. I later learned he was the Hungarian national duathlon champion, so that made me feel a little better about loosing so bad. Still, he was in flip-flops and carrying a backpack.

Inside the volcano we could see steam coming off the rocks. There were places where the rocks were so hot you couldn't hold your hand there for more than a couple seconds. Some people bring eggs to the top and steam them in grass nests in caves in the rock. On the way to Mt. Batur we passed a wild fire. I don't think I've ever seen a live shrub burn before. It was sad watching it wriggle and shake as the water in the limbs scrambled to keep away from the flame.

Speaking of wild fires and cooking things in the mountains, it's way too hot here. "My blood is too thick for [Bali]. I've never been able to properly explain myself in this climate."(Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) I'm not sure of the exact temperature but I sweat just sitting there. How I long for the Wisconsin fall. I talk of it often, like a lost love.

For a while I got to imagine I was back home when I was in the cool of the karaoke room. The place we went to was much nicer than the place I'd gone before but the vibe started out much mellower. I think this was due to all the sad songs about lost loves and slow songs in Indonesian which I assume were also depressing. Some advice for anyone doing karaoke: check your broken heart at the door. Everyone has a broken heart, you can see it in their eyes during the sad love songs; don't remind them. Pick an up-beat song that most people know and sign with all you've got, even if you don't know the words. Eventually things got more animated. I sang American Boy, Like a Rolling Stone, I Will Survive and Bohemian Rhapsody and danced to Party Rock Anthem and Gangnam Style. (For the record Kyle, I didn't pick those songs, I prefer female artists).

The mosquitoes here are much worse than anywhere I've been so far. Miguel and I had a fun time trying to kill all the ones in our room, like soldiers killing a hated enemy. There was one rogue mosquito that took us for ever to get and we're not even sure we got it.

Though the beaches are nicer and the volcano was beautiful, Bali hasn't been my favorite place. The people here are as friendly as everywhere else which has made things better. I'm looking forward to getting to the more remote parts of this great country. Unfortunately I'm going to have to wait until the 8th to leave Bali since I applied for a visa extension and they wont have it done until then.

Soundtrack: Like a Rolling Stone (Bob Dylan)
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1km down and to the right, 20km to the top

Mt. Bromo at twilight as seen from our mountain
Mt. Bromo at twilight as seen from our mountain

Surabaya was a bust. The US consulate told me I need to go to Indonesian immigration to get my visa extended. When I got to the place my consulate and Google told me the local immigration was, it wasn't there. Their website didn't have an address or phone number listed. There was still no word from my friend so we decided to get out of town. 8hr in Surabaya was enough anyway.

Around we hit the street with a sign for Mt. Bromo. The people here are very friendly. In general there aren't too many beggars or people trying to sell you things. Everyone wants to get you in a vehicle though. A bus, taxi, angkot—it doesn't matter. Literally non-stop there's people hassling you: "Where you going?" "Where you gooing?" "Where you go?" "Where you goiing?". They stress the vowels. A lack of sleep and food was starting to set in. Temperatures were running high. I could feel myself getting ready to snap.

Someone finally pulled over. He said he could take us part of the way so we hopped in. He dropped us at the point where we headed opposite directions and we grabbed a local specialty for dinner then headed back to the road. This was a far less traveled road. That's when the itching set in. Apparently I had gotten bitten last night when I was trying to sleep. Everywhere.

A man and his wife stopped to pick us up. We seem to always get the fastest car on the road. This guy was texting while passing people that were passing people in oncoming traffic. You wouldn't have guessed it from looking at him but he was a motocross racer in his spare time.

Where our paths went a separate way he dropped us off. He stressed that if we just walk 1km and take a right we'll be on the right path and that a farmer returning from market will likely take us to the mountain but not all the way up. We started walking. 3km later there was no sign of a road. We asked for help and the person knew exactly what road we were talking about. It was just 1km further and to the right. 2km later the only road we passed lead to a haunted forest. We asked again. This person was sure, it's just 1km down and to the right.

This time it was. We put up our sign and started to wait. The hassling in the county is just as bad as in the city. We do our best to get away from people so they don't hassle us but that's hard to do. 7min later a farmer stopped to pick us up. We tried to get him to take a picture of us and it was clear he'd never seen a digital camera before—perhaps never any kind of camera.

Miguel and I in the back of a farmers truck with two sacks of potatoes

We hopped in the back of his truck with two sacks of potatoes and were off. 5min later he pulled up in front of a house and got out. Is this our stop? He started yelling at the house. No one answered so he got back in and pushed on. The same thing happened again 5min later. The third time someone answered. It seemed our driver wanted to buy some corn. Whatever price the person offered must not have been good so he went back for the truck without saying anything. The person called him back so he walked up, grabbed some corn and threw it in the back with us, gave the person some money and started driving again. We started going up. And up. And up. This guy really farms up here? We must have picked the only farmer that lives up here.

Near the top of the mountain around 10pm he let us off. He said the top was 20km further. We decided to walk. Before he had driven away another truck came by and we flagged it down. They would take us further so we hopped in back. Before they dropped us at the top of the town and said it was just 20km further.

The night was perfect. It was almost a full moon and it was so bright you could read the fine print in a contract with no additional light. The weather was perfect—what I assume it feels like back home right now. I miss the cool crisp air. 5-7km later we felt good about our location. We'll make the top before sunrise which people tell us is 3am.

That's when three constructions trucks came by—the only vehicles we'd seen since we left the town. They were willing to take us further! The back was full of re-bar so we crammed in the front with our packs. Around we were right at the top when they pulled off onto a road which had a gate blocking it. It seems the main road goes to a mountain overlooking Bromo but they were building a road TO bromo and they were willing to bring us to the end of it!

From here on out the road was rough. We got to the end and they began unloading. It was starting to get cold. It was great to see how these people worked. They unloaded the truck by tying a cable to a tree and the other end to the re-bar and then driving away. They were all wearing flip-flops and winter coats. When they were done unloading they told us we could walk to Bromo—only 60km further.

Then they realized I was wearing a t-shirt and carrying a really heavy pack. They threw our stuff back in the truck and motioned for us to get back in. They took us back to the main road and went back down. We started walking up. Around we'd reached the top of the road so we started bushwhacking to the top.

I can't describe how beautiful it was. Bromo was there in all it's majesty, surrounded by peaks sticking up through the clouds. A distant peak was particularly beautiful. The moonlight cast everything in an enchanting glow.

I suggested we build a fire and Miguel agreed. We had to go back down to find wood. At first I was worried because it was the end of the dry season. I quickly learned that the dew had fallen so as I pushed through the tall wet grass, drenching myself to the waist, my worries about starting a forest fire washed away.

The fire saved our life that night. It must have gotten down to near freezing and neither of us had winter cloths. We were huddled very close to the fire. I looked back at the distant peak I had thought was so beautiful and now it was light up a magnificent orange. Glowing and shimmering the color moved down from the top. It was lava. We watched it all through the night. That and a little ramen we made in my Nalgene were probably the only things that kept us going. We were determined to make it to sunrise.

came and went and no sign of the sun. At the moon disapeared and it became really dark. is when we saw the tourists riding to the top of a neighboring peak. At we saw some color. By the sky was light up pink. I took out the chocolate. I had brought the best chocolate I could find for my friend but since I didn't get to see her there was no use saving it. I associate chocolate with the tops of mountains anyway, and all the candy I carry gets heavier every day.

The sky turned orange. Then red. Still no view of the sun. I think it was around when I collapsed. I remember standing up and then around I woke up face down in the grass with my head pointed down the mountain a fair distance from the fire. I had missed the sunrise.

Miguel was passed out by the fire. The clouds surrounding all the mountains were gone and everything was drenched in unflattering sunlight. The scene wasn't so beautiful anymore. I wasn't disappointed though, I had gotten the best experience. The other bules didn't hike 15km to the top, fight to stay warm, watch lava flow down a mountain or see everything lit by moonlight.

At it was still freezing and the fire was dwindling so we decided to move on. We could see a village from our location and it was in the direction we wanted to go—the opposite direction than we came from. We descended to the road and started following it. It kept going up—apparently we hadn't reached the top. 5km later we finally made it to the highest point and were ready to descend. The only problem is that the road stopped at the top. That would explain why there were no cars coming and going. The tourists had already left.

The view from this other peak wasn't as good as from our mountain and I don't think the lava would have been visible. The end of the road was like the construction in the jungle all over again. What are we gonna do? It's 45km down to the village we came from and there are no cars to hitch a ride with. We considered climbing down but it was far to steep and we were too weak from climbing yesterday and not sleeping or eating.

We asked one of the vendors at the top how to get to the village we could see and they told us that 1km down the road and to the left was a dirt path leading down the mountain. We had to go for it. I doubt you'll find this path in the Lonely Planet or any other guide books. It was for locals. We passed one pair of people carrying supplies from the village. The view was stunning. This is what I was looking for. This was nature.

5km straight down and we hit a dirt road. Well, it was more volcanic ash than dirt. About 4 inches of it. Every step kicked up a cloud. It was only 3km further to the remote village, or so we thought. As soon as we got there we saw the bule. This was a tourist town. We ate breakfast and started hitchhiking again. We had to borrow a pen to make our sign since apparently we had both lost ours.

After days in the big cities and dirty mountains we were ready for the ocean. Bali was our final destination but there was no way we'd make it there today. We discussed which town we should put on our sign when we decided to circumvent the problem and just wrote "Pantai" which is Indonesian for "Beach".

Being a tourist town the only vehicles leaving were buses and we didn't want anything to do with them. The hassling continued. Finally someone was willing to take us. 1km later we were in a village of locals and he dropped us off. From that point on several vehicles took us 1-3km down the mountain. Finally someone took us out of the mountains and dropped us at a big road.

5min passed and no luck. That's when we saw it. "This is the one" Miguel said. It was a red and gray 1969 VW van playing classic rock, soul and r&b. The guy pulled over and we got inside. He asked us what beach we wanted to go to and we told him it didn't matter. He said it's a shame we were stopping here since the beaches aren't very good and he was on his way to Bali.

Us with the guy that took us to Bali

We were now on our way to Bali. They guy told us he was an architect and had designed several houses in Bali. Hitchhiking is the best. You meet so many different people and when you have a question about what you see out the window you get an answer immediately.

He treated us to lunch. Miguel and I took turns sleeping in the back of the van. He asked us where we wanted to go in Bali and we said we didn't know. He was going to the capital and offered to take us there. We'd had enough of the big cities so we declined. 45min onto the island he dropped us off and pointed us toward a road that lead to the beach.

15min later a man and his wife picked us up. Again we were in the back of a truck and again the temperature was perfect and the moonlight was magical. An hour or so later he dropped us off. We surveyed our surroundings and saw resorts. This was not the place for us and the beach was nowhere in site. We put our pantai sign back up and waited. 20min later someone finally stopped. He explained that the beach was just 1km down the road and to the left. That would explain why no one was stopping.

Tired and sleepy we started to walk. We got to the beach. It was like chocolate tapioca pudding. Black sand speckled with pearly white rocks. We walked back to town to look for a place to eat, drink, go to the bathroom and maybe use the internet. Nothing was open. So we walked. And walked. And walked. Finally a place was open. Food and toilet but no drink or internet. We could see a city 3km in the distance so we decided to walk for it in hopes of some juice, internet and a decent place to crash. Everything there was closed too and the beach was even worse. It was like the last beach but more polluted.

We were too exhausted to do anything else so we cleared some space on the sand and hunkered down for the night. It wasn't the best sleep but it wasn't the worst either. The next day it was hot, very hot. We decided this town sucked so we went looking for the internet to find a better place to go and maybe a place to stay when we get there.

Even internet was hard to find here. We went into a grocery store in search of wifi but they didn't have it. We did get some pens though. Finally we found some internet. It was very slow and in some sort of a sauna. I started looking for better places and Miguel started posting on CouchSurfing. An hour later we had no leads. I found some beaches but they were all in the south and east, about as far from us as possible. No hits on CS either.

That's when I walked back to the convenience store and bought a bottle of arak(local spirits) and whiskey. With nothing to do here and no where to go we walked to the beach, booze in hand. We found a shady spot on a ledge overlooking the sea of water and garbage and began to drink.

We had to keep moving. There's no way we could stay here. Again we discussed what to put on the sign and again we had a bright idea. Let's make two signs! So we did. Mine said "Di Manapun"(anywhere) on one side and "Tidah"(no) on the other. Miguel's said "Bersama"(together) on one side and "Terima Kasih"(thank you) on the other. Together we made "Anywhere together" and "No thank you". The second one worked wonders when people harassed us. It didn't stop them but it got them away much quicker.

With two half bottles of booze and a sign that read "Anywhere together" we went to the road began to wait.

Soundtrack: Don't Dream It's Over (Crowded House)
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Hitchhiking Indonesia

Miguel and I in the back of the first truck that picked us up
Miguel and I in the back of the first truck that picked us up

I'm glad I fixed my sandals, they make an excellent cushion when you're sitting on something hard—like the back of a truck. Miguel and I decided to hitchhike from Yogyakarta to Surabaya to drop in on a friend of a friend from the states. Why would we hitchhike when a bus or train from one side of the country to the other is no more than 2USD? It's not about the money, it's about the journey.

We started just outside the opposite end of town than we wanted to be on. Our host's cousin and house maid took us on motor bikes into town. From there we grabbed a bus, hitchhiked with two ladies and finally took an angkot to the other end of town. An angkot is like a mix between a bus and a taxi. It's a van that drives a specified route through the city and you can get on and off when you please, but like a taxi you only pay for the distance you travel.

Before we left we made two signs on a cardboard box—one for our final destination and one for a big city on the way. We lost the sign to our final destination before we made it to the other end of town. We weren't on the side of the road for more than 5min when a truck pulled over and let us hop on back. As luck would have it they were going 80% of they way to Surabaya.

The sun is harsh at the equator, especially when there are no clouds to dampen it. In the back of a truck there's nothing to block you from the suns scorching rays. We put on sun screen and hoped for the best.

Miguel and I really like mangoes. In fact, you might even say we love mangoes. We were going to bring a bunch of them with us on our voyage but I lost my travel knife so we had no way to cut them and we were running low on time because we got a late start.

Ramen noodles cooking in a Nalgene on the back of a truck

Around we started to get hungry. We were woefully underprepared for this trip. We had little water, little food and no cover from the sun. Luckily Miguel had two packages of ramen noodles stashed in his bag. We had no way to cook them so we added them both to my Nalgene bottle and set them to bake in the sun along side us. In 20min they were done.

Eating ramen out of a Nalgene with no utensils can be difficult. Miguel tried first and got noodles all over himself. The locals were mesmerized at the sight. They acted like they've never seen two white guys drinking noodles out of a bottle in the back of a moving truck. Still they was good.

A little after the truck stopped at a road side stand. They were selling roasted coconuts. They had whole coconuts(in the outer green husk) over a grill. After 30min they would cut the top off and brew a tea inside using the milk and meat from the coconut. I've never had a grilled coconut, in fact, the thought of grilling a whole coconut had never crossed my mind.

It's funny how quickly you loose track of time in the back of a truck. Before you know it the sun is down and you have no idea where you are. Luckily I had recently purchased a smart phone so I could check Google maps and follow our exact location. This came in handy many times. We'd get on a bus and if it deviated from the route we wanted to take we'd get off and find another.

A little after the truck pulled over to let us off. The men asked us for money, we think for food. We gave them some money but were worried that that's what hitchhiking in Indonesia would be like. Again we were lost. We had a general idea of what city we were in but not sure what part. I think we were on the opposite end of town than we wanted to be on again. I took out my phone. It showed our location so we started walking. It was supposed to be 4k to the other side of town.

A note on hitchhiking and Indonesian cities/highways. When hitchhiking it's generally best to get to the far edge of town in the direction that you're going. That's where all the streets converge giving you the highest chance of finding someone to give you a ride. Unlike anywhere I've ever been before, Indonesian cities have no edge. The road from town to town is lined with shops and houses so you can't really tell where one place ends and another starts.

We had been walking and trying to catch a lift for over an hour. Google maps wasn't updating. The city was weird and Miguel made a comment to that effect as soon as we got there. For starters it wreaked of sewage. Kinda like someone was making a can of baked beans at Yellowstone national park. This was probably due to the literal river of garbage slugging along beside us.

None of the people we saw were speaking. Then, out of no where, it started to get crowded. People were dressed in what I can only assume were traditional religious garments. Perhaps these were all the Muslims I haven't been seeing. In a matter of minutes we were at the heart of a gathering. There were projectors, speakers and lots of Muslims. I felt uncomfortable being an American and we kept moving as quickly but non-discretely as possible—which was not very possible on account of carrying two huge packs and likely being the only bules(white guys) to walk those streets.

As quickly as we had entered the demonstration we were back out of it. That's when I started hearing music. It was Price Tag coming from a road side restaurant but on really crappy speakers. It was an oddly joyous song to be playing in this somber, smelly town.

After another 30min of walking we'd had enough. We found a gas station and decided to stay there and take turns sleeping and looking for a ride. I got the first sleep shift. After 10min Miguel woke me up and said we had a ride. One of the truck drivers that had been parked in the gas station had started talking to Miguel and told him they were going and hour more in our direction, leaving only 20km to Surabaya. We decided to take it.

The view from the back of the dump druck

He gestured to the back of his dump truck and with my pack on my back I pulled myself up to peer inside. It was dirty. Really dirty. It was literally full of dirt. We got atop the pile of sand and the driver motioned for us to lay down. He said we couldn't be seen or he'd get in trouble.

A note on Indonesian distances. The Indonesian kilometer seems closer to an American country mile. Meaning if someone here tells you something is 10km away, it's likely 15km away. But if they tell you the waterfall you jumped from is 15m high, it's likely only 7.

The sand was really comfortable and the temperature was perfect. The sky was clear but no stars were visible. Since I've gotten here I've seen very few stars. Whether I've been in the jungle or on the beach the stars simply aren't out.

A we got dropped off again. We thought about pushing on for Surabaya but figured we'd have a better chance finding a place to sleep in this smaller town. We started walking when we came upon a beautiful park—unlike any we'd seen since we got here. Well, I haven't seen any parks since I got here. I started walking inside when a man dressed in army gear came out to greet me. This was not a place to sleep.

A short way down the road we came upon a building a with a little grass in front. I suggested we look in back. There were some people sleeping on the side of the building but we just walked past them. Then we came to the sewage treatment center. It had lots of great grass but smelled like the previous city. Around the corner of the building was a parking lot with a row of ambulances. We saw a 1 meter wide strip of grass behind them and decided to go for it. That's when we heard the security guards. It was late and they were shooting the shit so when they weren't looking we made a run for it. Hidden behind the ambulances we feel asleep. I awoke around but Miguel was still sleeping so I went back to sleep. Around the guards woke us. They were very nice. I got the feeling that sometime in the night they found us sleeping