Sep 2013

Asia, Blog


A Chance Encounter

It all started with a note clipped under Nacho’s windshield wiper.

Hello friends- I am a fellow Volkswagen T3 owner and have some questions for you about your set up. Please call and we will meet up. – Soenke

We found the note shortly after we had wandered out of our hotel and into Nacho’s living quarters. As we cooked our morning eggs and espresso three shoeless kids in tattered clothing wandered past our open sliding door. As they passed by they froze mid-step and stared at us like little does in a set of headlights. They had never seen a kitchen inside a car.

I invited them in. Whatever they were doing and wherever they were going didn’t seem to matter anymore. Two sat next to me on the couch and the last one stood facing us. They were enamored by all of the new objects around them and wanted to touch every last one of them. They pointed to every book on the shelf and I obliged, hypnotized by their gorgeous chocolate eyes and radiant smiles. I showed them photos of India and Laos, and plenty of other photos that looked just like their back yard. They peered inside our empty sticky rice container and I could see the confusion in their eyes. If we didn’t store our sticky rice here, where did we store it? They found everything and wanted everything. Mostly though, they wanted our food. They rubbed their bellies and stared at the eggs in the pan.

Suddenly, the hotel staff member who slept on a cot in the hotel lobby rushed over to the van, worried. He could only see that our door was open and that kids were inside. We told him everything was a-okay—we had invited these little rug rats in with us.

It was a weekday and I asked the staff member why these kids weren’t in school.

He seemed surprised by the question. “These kids don’t go to school. They are poor children. They find bottles on the street and collect them for their families to sell.” He moved to the side to display the evidence: the children’s plastic burlap bags. They were massive—big enough to hold a few hundred bottles. So far they only had a handful but it was only eight in the morning and they still had the whole day ahead of them.

The whole thing just sucked. It was all so wrong and unfair and I wondered how these kids would ever break the cycle of poverty. How could they though if they never even got the chance to go to school?

We packaged up a bag of fruit for the children and gave them a stupid little stuffed animal that I had promised my family I’d take pictures of. I was quite certain they’d cherish it more than I would.

Well, that’s Cambodia for you. It’s sad and beautiful all at the same time.

Soenke, the man who had left the note on our windshield turned out to be a blue eyed German man. He had married a sweet Cambodian lady and now split his time between Cambodia and Germany. He had just bought a boat and kindly invited us to join his family on a sunset tour around the nearby island. We instantly accepted. He said we could even invite our friends—the more the merrier. And it just so happened that we had some friends to invite. We had met a few new faces just that day on a bike ride on the same island that we’d be circumnavigating on our sunset boat ride.

Soenke met us in front of the hotel and led us down a road that paralleled the Mekong. In the center of a maze of streets he led us to his home—a true mansion in comparison to the stilted homes that surrounded his. His home had glass windows and the walls were painted and made of brick and mortar. The driveway was a clean sheet of cement and the bottom floor was a combined garage and commercial space. We cut through his backyard and in between the neighboring yards until we reached a steep embankment that dropped down to the shore.

“Now I have to tell you, I have a medical kit but I don’t have any life jackets. You enter my boat at your own risk!” It made no difference to Brad and me. I felt pretty sure I could maintain a butterfly stroke across the Mekong if push came to shove.

Soenke passed by us and waved us on. “Ah yes, here is my new boat!”

It was a tiny boat, and easily the smallest boat I had been on in recent memory. We slipped off our sandals and piled onto a wooden platform overlaid with a decorated bamboo mat. Beside Brad and me sat our new friends Karen and Heath, Soenke and his wife, her father, and another family member. Soenke climbed in last and worked his way to the far end, viciously rocking the boat from side to side. I thought we would likely sink, but I made it unknown. Karen and I locked eyes and it looked like hers were going to pop from their sockets. We made for a comical site. I wasn’t sure what we had gotten ourselves into, but something about it was fun. I felt like we were going on a danger picnic.

Brad assured me us that since we were on a boat, which by design is wider at the top, it would be nearly impossible to sink the boat at its current capacity.

“The lower the boat rides in the water, the more pressure it takes to sink it. Seriously, we’d need twice as many people in here before we’d have a problem.”

I felt better. [editor’s note: making up sciency-sounding reassurances is a great way to make your spouse feel good in times of despair]

As we motored against the current I attempted to talk to Soenke’s father-in-law. He was positioned last on the boat and I was his only company. Our conversation involved many blank stares and silent pauses and despite my constant answer of “no”, he proudly asked me over and over again, “Parlez-vous Frances?” Like many older Cambodians and Laotians, he could speak French. I nudged at Karen and begged for her to be my translator. She was from Quebec but she said Soenke’s father-in-law was incomprehensible. His accent was just too strong.

As we rounded a bend Soenke’s father-in-law pointed down the river toward a few dozen homes that rested above the water. “Vietnam, Vietnam!” This area was known locally as the Vietnamese floating village. We passed by and peered into a world of fishing nets, wooden boats, and homes patched together with wood, dried palm leaves and scraps of tin. Wardrobes hung from bamboo poles outside and despite the very evident lack of resources, every home had electricity for their bare hanging light bulbs and television sets: the ultimate luxury in these areas.

The sun was beginning to set and I was starting to feel hungry. Fortunately I had come prepared, having bought a snack of steamed sticky rice and coconut milk inside of a bamboo stick. I tried to open it myself, but Soenke’s father-in-law quickly confiscated it from me. He took the bamboo and rolled it against the deck like a rolling pin, loosening the sticky rice from the inner walls of the bamboo. He dug his nails into the giant wad of leaf roughage that served to plug the end, and discarded it in the Mekong. And then, like a banana, he peeled the bamboo siding down in layers. The rice held its shape: one gelatinous floppy tube of goo. Everyone broke off a chunk and enjoyed its subtle coconut sweetness.

As we rounded the far tip of the island a new setting appeared before us. The trees disappeared and only a grassy field and a sandy stretch of beach remained. I thought maybe we’d stop but we kept going. We cut the engine and finally began moving in the direction of the current. It was quiet and peaceful and as the sun set the guys practiced their gondolier skills. Brad was fond of his new role and brought us all the way back home.

I felt lucky—lucky to have had this chance encounter with Soenke and his family, and also to see new things and make new friends. Inevitably, these types of chance encounters always beg the question: who we will meet next?

Back on land we walked down Kratie’s boardwalk. In our hands, two servings of ice cream melted in their bowls, the remnants of us accidentally ordering durian-flavored ice cream. Near the end of the busy boardwalk a vehicle called out to us. It appeared to be lit up the way a vehicle is lit up when it is lived in. Just like the Cambodian kids, we walked past the open sliding door and stopped mid-step to stare inside. Chad and Chompa, the Indian-born couple from England eagerly invited us into their home—a converted Sprinter van—where we spent the next couple of hours sharing stories of home and the road, drinking tea, and reminiscing of our old lives.


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Sep 2013

Asia, Blog


The Saga of the Magic Worm

The silkworm is exhausted after five long days of work. It is happy and warm and lays there in the darkness, dreaming of the wings that are soon to blossom from its back. It will never be a monarch butterfly, but nevertheless, it will have new freedoms. But the worm is awoken from its dream. Its body is spinning out of control and its cocoon made of tightly wound silk is unraveling at lightning speed. Soon it is left naked, shocked and without wings. Like a spool with no yarn it has served its purpose.

Like most people, I knew little about silk. I knew that it came from silkworms, but the question of how, that remained a mystery. Ask most Laotians and they’ll probably know. That’s because at one time nearly every family within certain provinces produced their own silk. It was a common material and many household goods were made of it, from sarongs to diapers. It was at a farm called Mulberries late in the afternoon where I learned the story of the domesticated silkworm.

“Would you like to see the worms?”

Heck yeah I did!

When we stepped into the rearing house, I thought, well this is a new sight. A few middle aged women squatted next to a cluster of wooden trays. Behind them was a shelving unit extending the length of the room, and on it were many more trays covered in blue netting. They held little worlds inside, each one representing a different stage in the silkworms’ lives. Some trays were full of mere infants while others were nearing their final days.

I picked up a silkworm and it danced in the palm of my hand. Its skin was slightly translucent and it glowed a pale yellow. It bore an uncanny resemblance to a seahorse with deep set eyes and long nose, although Brad thought it looked more like a wolf. A wolf? Seriously? Maybe Brad ought to stick to Nacho maintenance.

Even though the silkworm can do spectacular things, its day to day life is rather mundane.  It primarily revolves around eating and pooping. But this is crucial for its big task ahead. It is the responsibility of the crouching women to continuously remove waste and uneaten foliage from the trays while restocking the worms with more leaves to eat.

The silkworms have incredible appetites and will consume 30,000 times their weight in food during their life span. As a result, Mulberries has acres upon acres of mulberry bushes, used mostly for worm food, but have other purposes as well: the berries are for eating and making dye, the bark is for tea, and the remaining leaves are used as fertilizer.

After three weeks of binge eating and pooping the worms are plucked from their communal trays and given new homes; “private flats” if you will on a revolving gridded tray. It is here that each worm will begin and complete the big project: making a cocoon. For five days the silkworm busily secretes two filaments from its mouth: a strand of silk and a cord of gum, which when exposed to air harden into one strand. This filament is worked around the worm’s body in a figure eight pattern until it’s fully enclosed in its cocoon.

Finally the job is done. The worm is happy and it lays there in the darkness, dreaming of the day it will emerge a level-one badass: a magical worm with wings. Yet what happens next is quite unexpected and tragic. Without any notice it is pulled from its tray and thrown into a pot of boiling water.

This is the only way to remove the silk from the little seahorse-wolf creature. It is flipped around and around as its silk is pulled away, through a collection of bicycle wheels and pulleys. The system is archaic but efficient and the cocoon’s figure eight pattern quickly unwinds leaving the worm naked and lifeless in the water.

The result from one cocoon is 250 meters of gorgeous yellow or cream silk.

Nothing goes to waste. The worms are eaten by the workers and the unusable outer floss of the cocoon becomes stuffing material for pillows and blankets.

To prepare the usable silk as weaving material it continues through a multi-day process: it is soaked overnight in rice water, rinsed, dried and then boiled in a pot of ash water to create a softer more silk-like texture. It’s then hand twisted in a single or double thread and finally dyed using the plants in Mulberries gardens. On this particular day, a few thick bundles of radiant orange and dark blue silk hung from the post drying in the sun.

Our final stop was the weaving room, a tightly packed space of inward facing looms.

“It’s sticky rice season so no one is weaving right now. Everyone’s in the fields working but maybe they’ll return in a few weeks. You wouldn’t believe how loud this place gets. People are just talking and laughing all day long.”

It was easy to imagine. I walked around the perimeter and peered into a place so incredibly rich with creativity. All of the artists were at different stages; some looms exposed a few feet of design and color scheme while others had just finished the skeleton of their work, a tedious process of arranging the threads through wefts and combs. In time, every project in the room would reach completion and a new set of projects months down the road would begin again.

Before leaving we stopped by the small on-site shop that sold silk products made on the farm. I admired the shawls and scarves that had taken weeks to make by hand using the cocoons of thousands of magical worms. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Brad running his fingers over a silk shirt.

We quickly agreed that a $100 silk shirt was not in the cards, and “besides”, I told Brad, “you could never pull of wearing a silk shirt”.  Instead we settled for some mulberry tea and a silk soap sleeve. At least this way we could keep ourselves smelling like berries.


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Aug 2013

Asia, Blog


The Plain of Jars

In the distance the road split and the orange blob on the back of the motorcycle taxi veered left. I pointed ahead and motioned to Brad to follow. “If we keep that monk within sight we’ll find the temple.”

The rural road out of Phonsavan quickly turned to red dirt. It was smooth and fast, but given Laos’s insane population of livestock, we had to remain on guard for suicidal cows and sleeping dogs. The monsoon skies were moody and it was anybody’s guess when the dark clouds would burst like water balloons and fall upon the radiant green sticky rice fields.

As I expected the monk led us directly to the temple and hence to our destination. The temple shared a parking area with the Plain of Jars site #3. We made it here after all—despite the highway 7 road bandits and the scare they caused us a couple of weeks prior. A big red sign sponsored by an NGO provided some statistical information on the area; in 2005, 6,863 pieces of scrap metal and 22 pieces of unexploded ordinance, or UXO, had been cleared from the area surrounding the jars. While this seemed like an awful lot of bombs to find in such a small area, it was nothing compared to the untold millions of them still scattered throughout the country.

After traveling to Laos it became apparent that my schooling had failed to bring to light this dark piece of American-Laotian history: the CIA’s Secret War. It was indeed my country that created this nightmare of a scenario; between 1964 and 1973, America’s military dropped 80 MILLION bombs on Laos—killing some 350,000 men, women, and children and uprooting a tenth of the population. This was far more bombs than the U.S. dropped on both Japan and Germany during World War II. Seventeen bombs per minute for nine straight years rained down on innocent civilians who knew not even what America was. And of these 80 million bombs, 24 million didn’t even go off. This has left Laos, 40 years after the war, still dealing with the aftermath of America’s distaste for their choice of political system and its unfortunate proximity to Vietnam. To this day 100 people die every year, 40% of whom are children, from unexploded ordinance.

One of the most highly bombed regions in Laos was in the North, in a place we had just come from. The Laotians in this region cleverly opted to spend the war years living in the region’s vast limestone cave systems. One such cave—Vieng Xai—became a safe haven for 20,000 villagers. And if one could forget for just a moment the terrible fact that bombs were dropping from their skies like raindrops, the whole network of tunnels, kitchens, assembly rooms, schools, and sewing rooms were utterly fascinating.

So the big red signs we saw all over the countryside weren’t surprising anymore. They also unfortunately created a constant reminder that any place without them could be littered with UXOs. Bomb clean up is a slow process and unfortunately, while the tourist sites receive much attention from NGOs, many other places in the country do not.

From the temple parking lot a local pointed to a bridge that led us through a thicket of tall bamboo branches. The bridge ended at the spine of two rice fields and we walked between them. These fields were just two out of the dozens that connected and ran down the valley. Field workers crouched over in rows and planted rice saplings while in the next field over a man up to his knees in mud and water pushed a tilling machine. Aside from the mechanized tiller, very little about the scene unfolding before us had likely changed much at all over the last 30 years. We watched the rice workers while they watched us. They were our entertainment and we were theirs.

Past the rice fields the area opened up into a hilly grassy meadow and at the top within an outcropping of mature trees was the Plain of Jars site #3. We wandered amongst the ancient stone jars, amazed by the site and its accessibility for anyone to explore.

Actual historical knowledge of the site is sparse but it is believed that the Plain of Jars dates back to the Iron Age (2,500 years) and that the jars were made from solid rock and used as burial urns. The jars vary in size from around one to three meters in height, and it’s believed that the dead were first placed in the larger jars for distillation, ensuring a gradual transformation from the earth to the spiritual world, and then placed in the smaller vessels for cremation. All of the jars have lip rims, so it is also assumed that at one time they all had lids, although few have been found. This suggests the lids were made of perishable materials and did not survive the years.

Local legend has it that the jars were made for the mighty Khun Cheung, who after a long, hard, and victorious battle, needed them for brewing and storing his supply of rice beer. We think Laos deserves a bit of hard won leisure—a moment to kick up its feet and get lost in a victorious rice beer—so we’ll just stick with the legend.


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Jun 2013

Asia, Blog

DISCUSSION 21 Comments

The Ill-Fated Jungle Trek

“Jungle trekking, yeah!” Sheena was visibly excited on the morning that we awoke for our ill-fated day of jungle trekking.

She’d picked up a new pair of trekking boots after we left Argentina, and now walked in circles in the parking lot of Thailand’s Khao Sok National Park while stealing glances at her fancy footwear as I finished loading up the backpack. Rain jackets, water filter, bug repellent? Check. Bathing suits and water? Check. Canned tuna (curry flavor), rice crackers, bananas? Check.

“I heard they have wild elephants here,” Sheena reported, energetically bouncing around in her boots. “And you know what?” She continued, “I also heard they have rare barking deer!” Her eyes looked like they were about to pop out of her head; if the wild elephants didn’t get me excited, the rare barking deer sure would!

We finished loading up our things and set off across the bridge, leaving our camp behind. The sun was already high overhead, evidence of our perpetual difficulty in getting out of bed on time, and our tendency to lollygag and engage in a lengthy coffee and breakfast routine. It didn’t take long before we found ourselves trudging along through a dense thicket of bamboo.

“How are your new boots feeling?”


Sheena kept the trail in her peripheral vision while scouring the surrounding jungle for any sign of a rare barking deer.

“What was that sound?” She would say.

“It was a bird.”

“How do you know it wasn’t a rare barking deer?”

“Sheena, it was a bird.”

By the time we had reached the first three or four scenic offshoots to the main trail, each leading to a swimming hole or small waterfall, the sun had turned the jungle into a sauna. The temperature soared and the stifling, still air strangled our lungs with every breath.  The jungle changed from dense bamboo thickets to a tight tangle of vines and trees. A barking deer? possible. But there was no way that a wild elephant could live in this mess.

Our goal for the day was to reach the end of the trail, which terminated at the seventh waterfall. After the sixth, the trail shot straight up and over a series of steep ridges. We could no longer walk; instead we were forced to scramble by holding onto roots and vines. We climbed on, drenched in sweat, stained by mud, and nauseous from the heat.

“I think we should turn back,” Sheena said as we topped the final ridge. “The trail is too steep – we still have to come back through this.”

Having walked close to five miles through the dank jungle, turning around so close to our destination didn’t seem right. Besides, what if there was a rare barking deer out there somewhere? We reluctantly descended the far side of the ridge on a worsening trail. The sound of the waterfall intermingled with the rumble of thunder from the swelling clouds overhead.

When we finally reached the bottom of the ridge we lowered ourselves off of a tall rock ledge and onto the rocky shore of the river. Before us a waterfall cascaded gracefully into a large pool surrounded by enormous boulders. We spotted a flat rock and made our way out to it for our celebratory lunch of curried tuna and crackers.

Shortly after situating ourselves around our fancy lunch items, we heard a distant hum. Sheena nimbly shoveled scoops of zesty fish into her mouth as I fumbled with the crumbling rice crackers. I had barely gotten my can of curried tuna open when the distant hum grew into a buzz and presented itself to us as a large swarm of angry bees.

“All you have to do is hold still,” Sheena confidently announced. I tried this, but the tickle of tiny wings brushing my face and body got the better of me and I started to freak out.

“God, they’re everywhere!” I shrieked. Sheena sat there, apparently of less interest to the bees. “I need to get in the water!” I said, gasping, and proceeded to hurriedly whip off my clothes and throw them onto the rocks. The bees temporarily followed my clothing, saturated with my apparently tasty perspiration. The bees quickly lost interest in my clothes, and one bolted back at me and stung me on the back. I yelped, and then grabbed my swim trunks from the backpack, threw them on, and leapt from the rock into the chilly water.

I paddled away from the rocks and into the center of the pool. I could see Sheena holding very still on the rock. I paddled over to the waterfall and sat underneath its flow, letting the heavy water massage my shoulders. Everything was going to be okay.

Just then I heard Sheena’s signature squeal, so I looked up. Sheena stood atop the rock, frantically making hand gestures toward me like a Navy Landing Signal Officer. The only difference was that Sheena’s hand signals bore no resemblance to anything remotely comprehensible. She seemed to be making a sock puppet with one hand, while she pinched at the air in random flailing motions with the other hand. I yelled that I didn’t understand, at which she did a great job of signaling that I was a dolt. Next, she raised both arms and did what appeared to be “jazz hands”, and then looked all around and pretended to pick up random scattered objects with chopsticks. I had no idea what she intended to say. Finally she started whipping at the air and ran away into the jungle.

As she disappeared into the trees I heard her scream “BEES! I’ll meet you on the trail!”

A new curtain of fear came over me; the situation had worsened, and I would have to go fill my backpack and put on my boots amid a swarm of killer bees.

I timidly swam toward the rocks, and when I got close I could see a dark cloud of winged bodies around my things. If I was going to get out of here alive, I was going to have to be Indiana Jones about it. I jumped out of the water and ran into the bee cloud, whisking the bees off of my saturated t-shirt. I picked up the shirt and began violently whipping it about like a helicopter blade, or a Ninja Turtle nunchuk. The bees backed away from me, and the ones that didn’t got their asses chopped with my whipping shirt. I could hold them off- for now – but I had to figure out how to accomplish my tasks while my favored hand was being used as an anti-bee weapon.

With my left hand I dumped my curried tuna over the edge of the rock, hoping to create a diversion. It had no effect on the bees, so I started clumsily putting my clothes into my backpack while I whipped the air and my body with my sweaty shirt like some kind of masochist.

When at last I had sufficiently repacked my bag I hastily jammed my feet into my heavy trekking boots. I pulled the laces tight, but was unable to tie them, and then lowered my head, upped the tempo of my nunchuking action, and bolted. The bees followed me.

I ran through underbrush and thorny trees, trying to evade the bees, and finally came to the rock ledge that we’d lowered ourselves down earlier. I stopped whipping for a moment and ran at the ledge full speed, somehow making it to the top by imitating a loose approximation of parkour in my unlaced trekking boots. When I hit the trail I bolted uphill as fast as I could scramble over the roots and rocks until I’d reached the top of the ridge.

Sheena was nowhere to be seen. It had been close to fifteen minutes since we were separated.

Maybe she continued down the trail, I thought. But why would she do that? The bees had long since turned around, and there would be no reason for her to go farther. I opted to continue down the other side.

I slipped and clambered my way down the far side of the ridge, and finally reached the bottom, where the next ridge began, but still no Sheena. What the hell? There’s no way she could have hiked so far without me. At that point I could see two possibilities: she had either continued even farther than I had already come, or she had fallen off of the trail while running from the bees. Maybe her parkour skills weren’t as fine tuned as mine and she had fallen into the river while climbing the rock ledge.

I decided the first step would be to yell at the top of my lungs, which I did, for five or ten minutes. I alternated between eardrum-busting whistling and yelling Sheena’s name, but there was no response. “What the hell?” I kept saying aloud. The sun was getting low in the sky and the jungle was becoming dark.

Finally, just as I was about to turn around and scramble back over the ridge to the killer bees to look for her, I heard a familiar sound.

“Tee hee! Here I am, honey!”

“WHAT!? Where have you been? I’ve been worried sick about you! I thought you were unconscious and that the bees got you! What is wrong with you? Didn’t you hear me yelling!?”

“You know,” She said, in a voice that made the situation seem much less serious, “I ran away into the jungle and went really far, and then I waited for you. After ten minutes the bees were still hunting me and I started to get really mad at you for making me wait so long. I was like ‘What? No he DIT-INT’, but then I realized that I didn’t recognize anything. I finally walked back and realized that I wasn’t even on the trail. Woopsies! So then I came this way and here you are!”

I could hardly be mad at her. When you think someone has perished, and then you realize that they actually haven’t, you can really only be relieved. But we weren’t out of the woods yet! Literally, we weren’t out of the woods yet.

The clouds had continued to build overhead, and the thunder was becoming louder. The last thing we needed was to be stuck out here on these slippery mud ridges in a downpour. We swiveled our hips wildly from side to side as we speed walked through the jungle on the trail.

“Sheena, hold up,” I said, “I need to tie my shoes.” The situation had been so tense that I hadn’t realized that my boots were still untied and I wasn’t wearing my shirt. I pulled the soaked t-shirt over my head, retrieved some socks from my bag, and laced up my boots. The speedwalking recommenced.

With about a mile left to go before reaching camp, I looked down at my swim trunks and could hardly believe my eyes. My right leg appeared to have been shot, and my shorts were drenched in blood.

“What the f*@! happened!?” Sheena shrieked.

I shakily slid my pant leg up to reveal two seeping wounds. I wiped the blood away, but the flow immediately resumed. Sheena’s face turned white, but there was nothing we could do. We continued walking.

Finally, at long last we reached the bridge, crossed it, and found Nacho alone in our camp. We started to drop our things on the ground in exhaustion when I looked at Sheena’s shorts. She noticed the disgusted look on my face and looked down. A stream of dried blood was caked on her leg.

“ohmygod…I think I’m going to be sick,” she said. She quickly ran to the bathroom to see what the heck was going on. When she returned several minutes later, she was holding a bloody garment.

“Look what was stuck to my clothes,” she said, holding out her hand. In it, a swollen leach was nestled in the fabric. That explained what had gotten me as well. We retrieved our stainless steel salt grinder filled with pink Peruvian rock salt from the Andes, and proceeded to cover that mo-fo with dash after dash of fine rock salt until it disintegrated into bloody shreds.

We gathered some fresh clothes, a few band-aids, some Benadryl and soap, and made our way to the showers. We could wash off the blood and I could coat my bee sting with antihistamine, but it would be a very long time before we would feel the urge to go jungle trekking again. And the rare barking deer? Those rare barking deer can bite me.

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Aug 2012
DISCUSSION 10 Comments

The Great White North

Standing on a granite boulder in the middle of the creek, my neon green flyline whipped back and forth in ten-and-two motions overhead. In one final throw, I set the fly upstream of a large boulder and let the current carry it past what was sure to be an underwater lair filled with hungry fish. Moments later my line was taut, having coaxed a large native brown trout out from under the boulder. After a short battle, it jerked hard and broke my line. Sheena and Lauren had given us one mandate before we stepped out the door: bring back enough trout to eat for dinner. After two hours of fishing in Sedona’s Oak Creek Canyon, we had managed to catch and release a couple dozen six inchers, and the one edible-sized one had gotten away.

Later, while standing downstream of the bridge to Garland’s Cabins, a vacationing Mexican family walked past me and stopped to watch. I put a halt to my unfruitful fishing and excitedly recounted to them how we had left Mexico five months ago, and that I had spent every night since then crying myself to sleep thinking about the Mexican food we’d left behind.

I told them how on my recent flight home I had stopped over in Hermosillo, Mexico, with only one thing on my mind. I recounted how after the plane had landed, I had bolted away from the airport on foot, how the heat had enveloped me as I left the terminal, and how the air smelled like nostalgia. I was alone; for reasons not worth mentioning Sheena was on a different flight. Despite the absence of my navigator, I knew where to find my fix. I ducked into the first neighborhood I came across looking for a dealer who could feed my addiction. I wandered only a short time before finding what had been haunting my dreams, like a crack addict finding his next fix. As I approached the open air taco stand the husband, wife, and son were just setting up for the day. It was eight o’clock in the morning, the crock pots of beef and pork let off a hint of chili-scented steam. I dropped my backpack and melted into a familiar red plastic chair. A fly buzzed around the table, and the wife started slapping dough between her hands to form the fresh tortillas that would be the foundation for the many tacos on which I would gorge myself. The endorphins coursing through my veins put me into a stationary runner’s high. True happiness, I told the family as they sat on the bridge straddling Oak Creek, is a Mexican taco stand.

We returned empty handed to Mike and Lauren’s cabin on the banks of Oak Creek. Fortunately, Lauren was an avid reader of our blog, and knew that this would happen. She and Sheena had gone to the store while we were out, and nodded an unsurprised nod as we came through the door with nothing but our fishing rods. Without grocery stores we would have starved to death long ago.

A few days before hopping on the plane in Bogotá, we had put the word out on our Facebook page that we were looking for a car to use for a month to travel between the corners of our eje familiar; our families and friends were scattered between three locations in Arizona: Phoenix, Prescott, and Flagstaff. A few hours later, my good friend Brian – the one who introduced me to mountain biking in 7th grade, whose family had been good friends since elementary school, and whose sisters would host us in our final stop before crossing the border into Mexico at the onset of our trip – offered up his car. “No problem, I’ll just ride my motorcycle for the month,” he said.

With gas in our little car and freedom in our little hearts, we set off from Phoenix to the Great White North: our adopted hometown of Flagstaff. After a quick and, of all the excellent establishments we could have chosen, utterly unexplainable stop at Carl’s Junior, we knocked on the door of our good friends Brigit and Bret. We had crashed at their downtown home for the week prior to our departure, and when we arrived our room was just as we had left it; the same books were stacked on the desk, and the Flight of the Concords poster hung inanimately on the wall next to the bed. Bret, a magician when it comes to baking, hastily got to work making a fresh batch of his famous chocolate chip cookies.

In an uncanny display of perfect timing, we had arrived in Flagstaff just in time for the annual Clips of Faith festival; an outdoor gathering to celebrate brews and short films put on by New Belgium Brewing Company. Accompanied by our friends Nathan and Claire we made our way over to the park, bought a handful of wooden tokens, and passed the evening sipping remarkable beer, catching up with friends, and being entertained by this year’s selection of short films.

Fittingly, the last film of the evening was one we came across a couple of months ago, which puts into words and images our feelings about the importance of doing the trip we’re currently doing. Car trouble be damned, we’re doing the right thing.

The day after Clips of Faith we decided to continue the celebration. Being that the New Belgium crew was already in town, we threw together a beer tasting at Nathan’s house and invited some of the New Belgium crew. Nathan supplied a few bottles from a recent business trip to the East coast, while Grant, a New Belgium sales rep, supplied several experimental New Belgium brews and an especially rare and expensive bottle of 2002 Stone Vertical Epic, of which he had found an entire case buried in his garage. Matt, a brewer from New Belgium, spent the evening ensuring that our palates were well calibrated to the treats he expertly brewed up back in Fort Collins.

Before we started eight months ago, Nathan had brewed a special batch of Belgian Quadrupel for us; a beer he called World Wide Quadrupel. We took a case of it on our trip, temporarily occupying our toilet paper cabinet. After being hounded for a very long time by friends and fans of his beer, he finally pulled the trigger and decided to start a microbrewery. We dropped by the brewery to see how things were progressing, and found the place full of equipment, ready to be plumbed together into a beer wonderland. If all goes well, Wanderlust Brewing Company should be distributing in Arizona within the next couple of months. With the goodness he’s about to unleash on the world, Nathan is soon to be, I don’t know, the fifth most famous person I know.

The sixth most famous person I know is Delia Withey. There exists a natural foods brand called Annie’s Organics. Annie, as it turns out, is Delia’s aunt. When Delia was but a wee child, she had a rabbit named Bernie. Buyers of Annie’s foods will know that all Annie’s products come adorned with a stamp on the package depicting a rabbit. This is “Bernie’s Stamp of Approval”. Delia’s childhood pet is thus depicted on millions of boxes of Annie’s Organics, making Delia the sixth most famous person I know.

We spent our time in Flagstaff catching up with good friends and eating good food. We paid the exorbitant and shocking price of $18 for a hamburger and a drink at Diablo Burger, had the world’s best breakfast burritos at Tacos Los Altos, induced food coma over a plate of Fratelliquiles at Martanne’s, and gave ourselves wasabi headrushes at Karma Sushi. See the girl second from the right in the first picture below? That’s Delia. She’s the sixth most famous person I know.

The climax of our “Reacquainting with Long Forgotten Foods of Home” tour was a visit to our favorite restaurant, the Himalayan Grill. Arriving for dinner was like coming home from war; Ramesh welcomed us with a huge smile, Jit came out of the kitchen to chat and hear about our trip, and Karan and Jyotsna told us all about their newborn son. Ramesh brought me a beer from a local brewery, and Karan made Sheena a melon flavored coctail, which he delivered with a huge smile. “I always wanted to be a bartender in New York when I was growing up. This is a drink I made up.” The food, as usual, was awesome.

As we headed for the door, Ramesh corralled us into the bar and sat us down. “We must drink a toast!” Several shots of tequila and rum later, we were fully toasted and ready to walk home. As I clambered out of the bar to pay for our meal, Ramesh waved his hand. “We’re glad to see you, it’s on the house!” He then reached behind the register and produced a bag containing two dinners to go; Sheena’s favorite: saag paneer. “Now you don’t have to cook tomorrow,” he said, as he whisked us out the door. Some people just exude awesomeness.

After the first couple of weeks at home it was clear that the fourth option was the right one. I was enjoying a much needed respite from Vanagon maintenance and transmission problems, and a steady diet comprising mostly Mexican food had put a temporary end to me crying myself to sleep. While it is no exaggeration that true happiness is a Mexican taco stand, there is no denying the fact that no number of taco stands can rival the happiness that time spent with friends and family can deliver. Now, if only traveling halfway across a hemisphere could heal a man’s inability to catch a fish worthy of eating.

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Jul 2012

Blog, South America

DISCUSSION 11 Comments

Solace in the Snowstorm

“I’ve decided I’m a mountain girl”


At 4:30 I dizzily stumbled out of bed.  My skis waited in the car, and as I passed the table by the front door I grabbed the breakfast I’d set out the night before.  By 4:45 I was coaxing my eyes open as I barreled through the snow, NPR on the radio, banana in hand, waking up to news of skiers who had been lost to avalanches in California.  Unseasonably high snowfall this year.  At 6:00 I climbed steadily upward in the dark, the cold mountain air burning my lungs with each breath, the ski slopes illuminated only by the snow’s reflection of the stars in the night sky.  Through my headphones I was immersed in a podcast about traveling the world.  This was part of the ritual.

After an hour of hiking in the dark, imagining travel to faraway places, I reached the top of the mountain. 7:00 – just in time for the rising sun to cast a shadow of the San Francisco peaks all the way across the high desert to the Grand Canyon, barely visible below the horizon.  As I put away my climbing skins, pulled on my jacket, and kicked my telemark boots back into my ski bindings, I couldn’t shake the silly grin from my face.  With a nudge of my ski pole I sent myself sailing down the mountain I’d just climbed, crouching into each turn and springing up again, laying down the day’s first tracks.  At the “headwall”, half way down the mountain, I picked up enough speed to scare myself.  Yep, still alive!  I still couldn’t get that silly grin off of my face.

By 8:00 I was back in the car heading down the mountain, just in time for an 8:30 meeting at work.  There’s just something about being in the mountains.

On our first morning in Colombia’s El Cocuy National Park I awoke to an unfamiliar crispness in the air.  Having spent the last five months in Central America, we were getting used to stifling heat and humidity.  We crawled out of our down sleeping bags and put the coffee on.  It was going to be a long day.

James and Lauren emerged from the 4Runner bundled up like New York City hobos.  Overnight their front tire had gone flat, causing the truck to tilt steeply to one side, so James had spent the night crushing Lauren against the low side of the truck.  Another night in the life of a homeless person, I guess.

We donned our packs, bid ado to our new friend Jeni – a small red-cheeked girl who lived in the rock hut next to our camp – and set off toward the towering, snow-capped peaks to the Southeast.  The doubletrack dirt road ended shortly beyond our camp, and gave way to a small singletrack  leading up the valley toward Pan de Azucar and El Pulpito del Diablo, looming above.

The hike through the valley led us up grassy slopes and through fields of frailejones; the plants grow only 2cm per year, and are only found in this corner of South America.  Before long the path turned upward where the thin air made each step a small victory.  We had started the hike just below 13,000 feet and were climbing ever higher.

The trail rose higher and higher over mountains of shale, and before long we found ourselves scrambling over boulders up a steep rock fall towards the first pass: Paso de Cusirí.  If all went well we would complete two 15,000′ passes before descending to the Laguna de la Plaza, a high glacial lake at 13,780′, where we would camp.  We were told the hike would take about seven hours, and by the fourth hour dark clouds had moved in and cloaked the pass like a woolen shawl.  The trail wound upwards in a series of steep switchbacks straight into the cloud.

In the early afternoon we reached the top of Paso de Cusirí, and in doing so found ourselves in the middle of a snowstorm.  A mixture of snow and rain pelted us like horizontal pellets from an invisible army of rabbit-hunting boy scouts.  We hid behind the summit sign, which announced that we’d arrived at the inhospitable elevation of 14,469′. We assessed the situation, running out from behind the sign to look beyond the pass to see what lay in store for us; the trail disappeared into a carpet of dark clouds and whipping wind and snow.

“Onward and downward?” I asked, hoping for dissenters.

“Uuuuh…It’s decision time, guys,” James said.  Seeing the out, we decided to throw in the towel and head back down in the direction we’d come.  We weren’t prepared for blizzard conditions, and some of the team were already experiencing numb fingers and toes.  Nothing says “killjoy” like frostbite.  Or pulmonary edema.

When we reached the rock fall on the way down, we discovered that the entire stretch had been turned into a freezing cold waterfall.  I had a split-second daydream of me waking up dead, wrapped in my soggy sleeping bag at the bottom of a raging, icy cascade.  I silently lauded our decision to turn back.

The best time of year to visit El Cocuy is December through February for its pleasant weather.  Seeing as how we chose to visit in June, we knew we were playing with fire.  With unpredictable weather in this part of the range, we opted to drive to another area about two hours to the North.  Given the condition of the roads in these parts, this basically equated to us moving about 10 miles.  I’m no meteorologist, but this sounded like a surefire way to ensure a drastic change in weather.  The following day we picked up camp and moved to Hacienda La Esperanza where Marco, normally seen scurrying about his farm wearing a traditional wool poncho, cooked us dinner in his kitchen and showed off his antiques and old photos of the area.

In the morning we awoke to find a Kiwi named Joe lurking about our camp with his touring motorcycle.  He was on his way to Alaska from Argentina, and decided to tag along with us for a while on our hike.  We threw our things together and departed camp through fields reminiscent of Switzerland, interspersed with rocky spires jutting up through the grass while long-haired dairy cows moseyed about.

The hike took us through a low glacial valley filled with plants and streams before climbing upwards over a series of rocky plateaus.  On our right, an enormous rock wall separated us from the sprawling mountains and the tiny towns we’d driven through to get here; Onzaga, Covarachia, Soata, El Cocuy, and the truck driver’s secret road.  To our left, glacier-capped peaks shimmered above the rocky terrain, taunting me with their 17,000 foot powder bowls.  Would it be worth it to come back here one day with my skis?  I imagine that nobody has ever skied El Cocuy.

After five hours of uphill slogging we reached our destination for the night: La Cueva del Hombre, or The Man Cave.  I had asked Marco why it was called the Man Cave before we set off from La Esperanza.

“Long ago, some men used to climb to the lake.  Ducks would stop for a rest from their migration, and the men would shoot them.  The ducks don’t come any more.  The men would sleep in the cave after they shot the ducks, so it is called La Cueva del Hombre.”  I noted that Marco should make up a more titillating story about how the Man Cave got its name.

Once inside the Man Cave we set up our tents, and then Sheena and I decided to hike up to the lake to have a look around while James and Lauren took a nap.  We intended to spend the entire next day exploring the glacial basin, but we couldn’t stand the suspense.  We bundled up and bounced out from under the overhang feeling light without our packs.

The trip from the cave to the lake took a damn, dirty long time, but once we crested the ridge and the landscape spread out in front of us, we lost our breath.  Uh oh, pulmonary edema again?  Nope, just friggin’ awesome!  The mountain to the left was capped by an enormous bowl of untouched snow from top to bottom, where the glacier spilled over the edge of a vast chasm; a crashing calamity of building-sized ice chunks paused in suspended animation.  On the opposite side of the basin, another glacier spilled down from the top of another 17,000 foot peak, terminating at the edge of a colossal shear rock wall.  The ice composing the second glacier bore a map of its ancient history in dirty veins of ice crisscrossing its surface, and diving into its depths.  Between the walls of the basin were a series of small lakes fed by the runoff from both glaciers.  For minutes all we could do was stare in awe, a mixture of blood and adrenaline coursing through our veins.

“So, how was it?”  James peered out of his tent as we ducked back into the Man Cave, having just awoken from his slumber.

I was at a loss for words.  “It was so damn awesome… I felt like my heart was going to explode.”

As evening rolled around, we made a gourmet concoction of broken up lasagna noodles with canned tuna in olive oil.  Soon, the shadows engulfed our cave and a harsh chill pressed the warm air into the valley below.  We all huddled into our tent and passed the evening playing the travel-size board game, Trouble.  You remember the commercials: It’s fun getting into TROUBLE!

The feeling as we unzipped our tent in the morning to discover the ground covered in snow was a stew of nostalgia, serenity, awe, surprise, and regret.  The continued snowfall and resulting accumulation meant that there would be no more excursions to the glacial lakes.  It also meant that, since we didn’t know how much snow would accumulate, we would have to make a mad dash for a lower elevation.  We hastily drank our morning coffee and packed our things.  James and Lauren, both having lost their gloves, fashioned mittens out of wool socks, and we all pulled plastic bags over our feet before slipping them into our shoes.  Poor man’s Gore-Tex.

Hiking in the snow is about as close as we can get to a state of total serenity.  The snowflakes absorb any stray sounds and create an unnatural silence, while the muffled crunch of snow under our feet creates a rhythmic soundtrack to our movement.  As we silently descended through the snowy landscape my mind wandered to our winter camping trips to Durango, filling our tent with good friends and sleeping in the snow near the ski hill.  I reflected on my regular hikes to the top of Agassiz Peak before work, the shadow of the peaks stretching across the desert, and the rewarding turns.  I thought about our dear friend Mike who perished in an avalanche while backcountry skiing near his home in California.  I had heard about it on NPR while heading up to the mountain before work, but never imagined it would be my friend who was lost.  I remembered the discussion that Sheena and I had on the way home from his funeral, which ultimately led to us quitting our jobs and setting off on this very trip.

I liked that it was snowing; It put a silly grin on my face.  There’s just something about being in the mountains.

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Jul 2012

Blog, South America


The Road to El Cocuy, Part 2:
The Truck Driver’s Secret Road

Read Part 1 by clicking HERE >

We left Onzaga at the crack of dawn, following the truck driver’s hand drawn map.  We had scoured all of the online maps and satellite photography we could find, but had failed to locate the road between Onzaga and Covarachia that he had sworn was the fastest route to reach El Cocuy.  We were lost before we even made it out of the village.  After stopping several times for directions, we crossed the river and made our way along the base of a mountain, heading North.

The truck driver had told us that we would reach some dilapidated houses, and then make the first right.  Shortly after the houses we came to a fork in the road; the left road having been taken out by a landslide, we were happy to turn right.  After a mile the road started to disappear underneath grass, while the edge of the road had largely flaked off into the river.  We came across a man with a machete and a severe case of wookie eye, and we asked him for directions.  It turned out that when the truck driver had said “turn right”, he actually meant “turn left”.  It was our first inclination that he hadn’t actually driven his secret road before.

After retracing our tracks to the fork in the road, we stared disbelievingly at the path ahead.  A landslide had wiped out the road, but it looked like a tractor had driven across it and cleared the way.  It was going to be a long day.  We reluctantly followed the tracks through the slide, after which the road turned upward and began snaking up the side of the mountain.

Before long, the road became narrow and rocky.  The several days leading up to this had been on roads that could accommodate two vehicles side by side.  The truck driver’s secret road was a single lane, and based on its condition it clearly hadn’t been often used.  We gradually crept up one steep incline after another, interspersed with water crossings, landslides, ruts, and rock gardens.

After one water crossing, the road pitched steeply upward over a series of rocks and ruts.  It seemed we wouldn’t make the climb unless we carried some momentum into the rocks, and if we were unable to make it, we’d have to backtrack several hours and find a different route.  We had to make it.

We stopped to inspect the water crossing, and then backed up and took a run for it.  We made it through the water, and then bounced into the uphill rocky section.  After a couple of hard bumps our front wheels both came completely off the ground, throwing Nacho into a totally gnarly wheelie.  We came down, and the recoil from the shocks caused us to bounce into the air again.  It was totally gnarly, again.  When we stopped bouncing we had lost much of our speed, and barely made it past the rocks and onto a less severe incline.  And we wonder why poor Nacho keeps breaking down.

After three hours and as many mountain summits on the truck driver’s secret road, Sheena became nervous and started reading an e-book.  This is her way of hiding from the reality of the nerve-wracking roads we encounter.  Shortly thereafter, we approached a vertical rock crevasse in the side of the mountain, having sheer rock cliffs to either side.  The road seemed to dive straight into the crack of the rocks, but I couldn’t discern an exit.  We crept closer, but I couldn’t figure it out.  As we reached the crevasse, I was shocked to see the road make a tight switchback inside of the crack, and then cut back abruptly against the opposing rock wall.

As we rounded the chicane, I could see that the cliff-hugging road had a rock wall on one side, and a sheer drop on the other.  The road was the width of one vehicle, was strewn with rocks, and was bloody steep.  I gunned it and Nacho raced forward like an injured turtle.  As we bounced over the rocks I looked over the edge – only a couple of feet to my left out the open window.  The height was dizzying and I felt nauseous.  I stole a glance at Sheena, but she was oblivious to the situation, engulfed in her coming of age princess novel.  Or whatever it is that women read on their e-readers.

By lunch time we emerged at the intersection of a slightly larger dirt road, only a few miles from Covarachia.  We had cheated death and the VW mechanical gods once more.  We parked Nacho in the road and ate some cereal out of plastic cups while we gazed into the valley below.  Perched on the side of the road was a statue of a saint, where passersby could stop and make an offering for their safe passage.  I poured out the remnants of my cereal milk at its base and got back in the van.

Finally after half a day of driving, we emerged at the tiny mountain town of Covarachia, not having seen a single other vehicle since daybreak.  From Covarachia the terrain became more desert-like, the road being lined with agave and prickly pear cactus, mixed with tall green grass and bamboo.  We switchbacked down the side of the mountain to the town of Tipacoque, where we intersected a larger road running along the side of Chicamocha canyon.

After reaching Soata we took directions from a mute man aided by his toddler grandson, filled our gas tank, and headed Eastward, through canyons, winding roads, mountains, and more winding roads inching ever closer to our destination.

As the sun sunk low in the sky, after four solid days of brutal, twisting, slow, yet stunningly beautiful driving, we arrived in the pueblo of El Cocuy – the gateway to Colombia’s Sierra Nevada mountains and final outpost before our destination: Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy.  We found the Hotel Via Real, and inside, our friends James and Lauren who had arrived a day earlier from a different direction.

Before leaving Onzaga, we had told James and Lauren to watch our SPOT Tracker map, as we would be updating our location every 10 minutes throughout the day.  This would allow them to keep tabs on us and know when to expect us.  If the tracker sent repeated updates from the bottom of a ravine, they were to alert the proper rescue authorities.

“So…you chose an interesting route from Onzaga,” James said as he welcomed us into their hotel room.  He had watched as we had driven away from all of the possible routes on the map, and instead drove over an entire mountain range through an unmapped no-man’s land.

“Damn truck driver never drove that stupid road in his life.  Last time I take driving advice from someone whose name isn’t Garmin.”

We grabbed a room – an unremarkable  plywood cube with a rock hard bed – and refueled in the downstairs restaurant.  In the morning we would make the final Oxygen-starved push into the heart of the mountains.

When the sun came up, we loaded our trusty steeds, stocked up on empanadas for the car and non-perishables for the days of hiking that lay ahead.  We checked in with the park ranger and pointed upward and to the East.  Destination: Home on the Nacho Basecamp, elevation 13,000 feet.

After close to 30 hours of driving through mountains over the course of the previous four days, the hour and a half drive from El Cocuy to our first camp seemed to fly by.  We threaded through the mountains, winding past Swiss-looking backdrops of green mountain pastures and high peaks.

Finally, only a few dozen meters from the top of the final pass, Nacho stalled out.  The 12,800 foot elevation, in combination with a tricky rock climb and Nacho’s hamster-wheel engine proved too much.  James and Lauren towed us up the last incline to the summit like a high altitude porter and his unfit mountain climbing client.  At the pass, we stopped to take it all in.

A short distance from the road, we came across the foundation of the old park ranger’s cabin.  Although details of the story are hard to come by, I had gathered that El Cocuy was used as a base by FARC rebels and other paramilitaries due to its remoteness and natural defenses.  They had occupied the area since the 1970’s, forcing the boys in the surrounding villages to join them, and executing those who wouldn’t.  In 1999, FARC rebels forced their way into the ranger’s cabin, killed him, and set his house on fire.  After some time, President Uribe’s government sent in 20,000 troops to secure the region.  A bloody but short battle ensued, and in 2003 the park was finally cleared of rebels and considered safe to visit.  It hasn’t yet been “discovered” by adventure tourism – likely due to the difficulty in getting here.

After catching our breath we put away the tow strap and coasted the last half mile to our camp site; we had driven as far as it is possible to drive into the Sierra Nevada.  After pulling up to the edge of the ravine above a glacial stream, we popped our tent, extended the awning, thanked Nacho for his hard work, and cracked open celebratory brews all around.  We made it.

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