Saturday, September 13, 2008

Humu Humu Nuku Nuku Apua A, and Other Hawaiian Wildlife

I would like to start this post by ranting about what I believe will soon be a universally known pet peeve. I'm sure we have all encountered someone yelling into a cell phone in a place where it is impossible not to listen. My dad and others from his generation account for the majority of these people. Well, let me be the first to say that this breach of social etiquette in public places is "so last year." Here is the new annoying fauxpaus that I believe will someday usurp improper cell phone use. It is Skype. Yes, we all agree that the technology is developing fast, and the rates are cheap, but someone must set some boundaries. I am in Bangkok, sitting in at a computer, trying the let my thoughts flow onto this page, and sandwiched between two men yelling into their microphones. "MOM!!!! MOM!!! CAN YOU HEAR ME? OK. BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH BLAH!!!!!" The most unbelievable part is that there are only 3 of us in here! And I was here first! All these computers and they chose the two on either side of me... OK, my anger is subsiding with their excitement in whatever it is that they are talking about. I believe I can continue now.

I have chosen to title this post after the state fish of Hawaii. It is not just a pretty fish, but this, pointlessly long, 12 syllable name is also an allegory for how confusing budget travel in Hawaii can be. Accommodation, gasoline, food, and virtually every other aspect is hopelessly expensive. Camping permits are mandatory, they take hours to procure, and are often sold out. However, do not loose hope. These permits, oatmeal, peanut butter and banana sandwiches, pasta, and complete dedication to repeating this routine EVERY day will keep you alive... or at least prolong your inevitable bankruptcy. Thank god I came here to work construction, otherwise I'd be broke.

This trip to Hawaii was the perfect example of how a flexible lifestyle (some would call it joblessness) can bring good fortune. My friend Ramsey offered me a place to sleep (albeit on the floor) on the Big Island, $10/hour, access to the family jeep, and the company of a good friend. Who could turn that down? Not me, so I caught the first flight out South East Asia... Actually it wasn't that easy. Believe it or not, there are very few people that fly from the little island east of Bali where I chose to start this journey, to Kona, Hawaii. Here is what that entailed.

9AM: Bumpy bus ride to harbor.
1PM: The ferry to Bali leaves promptly 1hr late.
6PM: Arrive in Bali and jump into another bus across.
9PM: Arrive in Kuta and search for room (see description of said room in previous posting).
6AM: Wake and head to airport.
9:45am: Fly to Jakarta (2 hour flight, 6 hr layover).
4PM: Fly to Bangkok (4 hour flight 12 hour layover. That's right, 12 hours!).
I don't even know anymore: Fly to Tokyo (7 hour flight 6 hours layover).
What does it matter: Fly to Honolulu (I have no idea. I was completely incoherent by this time). Followed by more layovers before a little flight to Kona.

I think it was around 65-70 hours of sitting, stretching, staring, eating, not sleeping, and cursing my existence. Suffice to say I was in need of a break from travel and happy to see some familiar faces in the airport. Myself, my friend Ramsey and his little brother Ryland spent most of August building a garage. And by "we," I mean Ramsey and his brother Ryland. I guess you could call me "unskilled labor." I was just happy to be stable for a few weeks.

Our routine was pleasantly predictable. Let me summarize the first two weeks. Everyday at 7:30-8:30AM, I would pull the covers off my face, open one eye, unwrap my arms from my pillow/spooning partner, pull out my ear plugs, look up from my bed of cushions on the floor, and say in my best morning voice, "what time is it", even though the clock was right above me. I would ask anyway because I could see Ramsey Ryland watching the Today Show. They've been up for a while and don't ask why two twenty something men watch the Today Show everyday. Then we ate, then we worked, then ate some more, then worked, then ate/watched the Olympics (go Michael Phelps!) and fell asleep early. There is no greater joy than to re cooperate with a healthy lifestyle and watch a month slip by in a blink of an eye.

Oh, I made time for a week of camping in Kauai too. I would like to skip the specifics of that trip, though, buy me a beer and I'll tell you the rest, and limit myself to this one story. Imagine yourself in my position while I describe this scene. Its late, and you are camping on a county beach. Places like these are where local Hawaiian people stay on the weekends. They yell, stay up late and drink beer. We seem to have gotten lucky, though, because our neighbors are quiet tonight and the place is serene. I'm in my tent which I share with my friend Sophie. She is a 21 year old nursing student at Iowa University. We met about a year ago on the summit of Mt Kenya and have kept in touch ever since. In other words, she is a brave girl. Brave enough to spend all her money on a week in Kauai with a guy she hardly knows... and climb mountains too. Its hot on the beach and I am lying in shorts and sweating on top of the sheets. Its that perfect time at the end of a good day where I only am partially aware of my surroundings as I drift off to sleep so I don't pay much attention to the very small shift in the tent. Its the kind of movement, like when you roll over and your shift cause a bottle to fall on its side. Except this is not a bottle, its cold, on my neck, and I can't think of anything we have that would feel like this. I don't know if I imagined this, but I swear there was a skittling sound, like "ch ch ch ch ch." Something foreign is on my neck. That is about the closest I came to an actual thought and the reason why I reached for my neck with a sense of scientific curiosity and not terror. I casually grabbed this thing to look to see what it was.............. AND IT BIT ME!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


I would like to pause before I relay what it was that bite me... or stung me, I don't really know how a 6 inch centipede injects its poisonous venom... That's right, I was bit be a 6 inch centipede! Can you picture how terrifying this must be?! I mean this is in my tent! The place that we all count on when we camp to protect ourselves from the wilderness. AND IT WAS ON MY NECK!! IN THE DARK!! I apologize for the excessive use of exclamation points. I am obviously not fully recovered. But enough about that, the story must continue. This hideous creature stings me in the dark, I scream in a tone that I would retrospectively call "awkwardly high," and throw it across the tent... but now its loose, and somewhere between us and the door. Sophie, of course, wakes up and thinks I am making this up... That is until I say the word "centipede." Her response is to scream and fly out of the tent faster than anyone would have thought was possible. To this day, I don't even know how she opened the door that fast. Luckily for us, I am a conversationalist, and made friend with our neighbors earlier that night. They are a dread locked couple, living like true spiritual Hawaiians in their tent. They completely took over, thereby earning a special place in my heart for the rest of my life. My finger was swollen and throbbing, and feeling pretty loopy from the quadruple dose of Benedryl that my nurse Sophie just gave me... I was not in the proper state to kill this huge, angry and surprisingly fast thing in my tent. My dread locked angels took care of that, but centipedes don't die easy. They flatten themselves when you try to squish them and it took over 10 minutes to get the job done. Then I got to clean up the guts.

I think I'm going to stop here. I didn't have to go to the hospital and I never really did know how to finish a story. I'm in Bangkok at the moment like I said before. I'm coming from Cambodia and possibly on my way to Myanmar. There will be more stories to report soon. Hopefully they will not involve any insects, though, because I'm over it.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Indonesia For Lack of a Better Title

I owe an apology to anyone that is still be interested in reading these posts. My lack of contact over the last 5 weeks has not gone unnoticed. Its easy to find the motivation to write when you are sheltering yourself from the rain in an "over the top," chaotic city, but what about on a pristine tropical island? The answer, unfortunately for myself and my readers is obvious. Indonesia can be a difficult place to sit at a computer. Now I fear that these memories may not be as vivid as they would normally be. However, what I lacked in correspondence while I was bouncing around those islands, I more than made up in dedication to my journal. So I was thinking that I would take a few of those entries and spew them out onto this page. It may not be seamless account of a month of travel, but they are my favorite memories and maybe the experience will seem more fresh to all of you (if there is anyone left out there).

First, what do you know about Indonesia? Its OK to say nothing. All I had ever heard was news blurbs about old terrorist attacks and its terrible track return on the environment. I can confirm the latter. So before I get started, I offer a few basic facts about this country. Indonesia is one country of over 17,000 islands, 14,000 of which are inhabited. Not a very easy place to govern. It is also the most populous Muslim nation in the world. These stats made for a varied experience. One island would be Muslim, the next would be Christian, and all this with little old Bali practicing Hinduism in the middle.

July 12,

We made it to Bali!!!! Now what? Its not easy to arrive at night on an island where you can't even name a single city. Hmmm... So we followed some advice and were shuttled like sheep to Kuta, our present location. I'm sitting in a hotel room at the moment, this is how I would describe the place. My ears are ringing from that unmistakable house/electronica beat playing at the night club next door (they apparently start the music at 9pm... who does that?!). Its the same one that you hear in every club, or at least I think that is what you hear. I've never actually been to one. "UN-TSS UN-TSS UN-TSS!!!" The beat is so loud that I can feel the vibration all over the room. All this is complimented by the steady stream of revving mopeds on the street below us. The room itself is simple, 2 beds, a bathroom (sort of) and a decent deck. We have been using the place to its best potential, sitting and watching the family of rats scurry along the railing of the decks across from us.

I should interject for a moment here. I was traveling with my good friend from college at the time, Jake. He is arguably the most unique person that I have ever met. An idiot savant of sorts, smarter than I will ever be and on his way back to school for mechanical engineering. Not before he took a whirlwind 3 month trip around the world, though. Two of those weeks were with me. It was good to have him around, he always made life interesting. The randomness of his sense of humor could make a person wonder if he was autistic, but I loved it. He is that guy that you hear at the restaurant table next to you saying things like "I'm going to buy a bunch of guns" or "Mike, you know how all the people who vote in the US are religious zealots?" (both of which he actually said). Our days together were filled with laughter and good conversation. Who could ask for anything more from a traveling partner?

July, 13th

Kuta, Bali is for Australians what Cancun Mexico is for Americans. Just a bunch of spring break 18 year olds drinking... This can't be Indonesia... We must leave this place. The good news is that we are. As of today, we are the brand new owners of 2 mopeds for the next week. The deal was just too good not to take ($3.50 /day). Now we just have to learn how to drive them, and figure out how all of our stuff will fit onto those little things.

We thought we were off to a good start this morning when we successfully found the ignition and took off... at least I took off. Well Jake did too, but his take off was into a curb. It was hilarious! Partly because he was OK, and second because a lady came running from the guesthouse yelling "watch out." Oh right, thanks lady, we forgot the "watching out" part when we started driving.

It really wasn't that bad, though, after a few terrifying minutes. We just go with the flow and pay off the corrupt police when we have to. They are jerks and we have no international licences. Our parents would be glad to hear that we drive like two old ladies... in that we always seem to drive with our turn signal on.

We are off to our big trip across the island tomorrow. Our destination is Amed, its supposed to be the best place to scuba dive in Bali and I am stoked!! Now we just have to get there. Jake is calling it a trip in honor of Che Guevara... our own "moped diaries."

I'll summarize here in the interest of avoiding an overly long entry. We survived the trip. The rest of Bali is truly incredible. Its filled with beautiful beaches and rice fields. Jake and I spent 5 or 6 more days together diving and enjoying the beaches. We split up around the 18th, he wanted to head to Malaysia and I was itching to check out more of Indonesia.

July 20th,

Jake went to the airport yesterday morning, I spent most of the day writing a blog about Hong Kong. Well, not the whole day. I also went out and got myself a surf board. Surfing was a goal for me here and what better time to start than right then? The waves were not good enough to try anything more than the little stuff... but that was OK with me. After a little practice, I was able to get up and ride... I can surf... I'm a surfer now. The guy that I rented from was laughing when I returned the board (never a good sign). He said, "You were afraid of the waves!" What can I say? He was right.

I left this morning for the island of Lombok. As per norm in developing countries, the amount of travel time invested is always than what you are told it would be. The shuttle was late, it unexpectedly drove all over the island before dropping me off, the ferry left late, it took an hour longer than they said it would to cross the channel, we waited for another 2 hours in the harbor before we could dock, then it turns out that I was taken to the wrong harbor! That meant another 1.5 hours in a bus. The other tourists that I saw on the boat took this trip pretty bad. For me? I'd be lying if I said I was expecting it, but I wasn't that surprised when it happened. And now I'm here!!! '

July 23rd,

Life is good. We made it to our new home on the Island of Gili Trawangon, a name I'm sure that I will never be able to pronounce correctly. The more expensive rooms here boast to have "fresh water," something we apparently cannot afford. That is not the only thing our room does not have. You can add, toilet paper, soap, sheets, and a sink to the list. The power just went out too, I guess it happens all the time here, so add in the AC that we paid for.

But the beach is endless (its a round island), and there are numerous little bungalows not far from the shore where you can enjoy a beer. The food has been great, you can see every star in the sky at night, our road is made of sand, and the only transportation, besides your feet, is a donkey with a cart. They call them the "Gili Mercedes."

I stuck around and enjoyed the island for a few days before heading out on another adventure. This time was on a small boat that looked conspicuously like the Minnow from Gilligan's Island. There were 7 of us in total and I have no doubt that they loved every minute of their close company with me while i sang the theme song from that show. We spent 5 days together hopping from island to island.

July 28th,

I don't think that there is any particular event or activity from the boat trip that made this such an enjoyable experience. Perama Island was OK, farming for coral was a touristy joke, the salt lake was anticlimactic, and seeing all those komodo dragons was incredible. But... there was so much more to it than just where we stopped. I could sit above the deck and stare at the sea for hours. The enormity of open water has a very relaxing effect. It makes you realize how small you are and how inconsequential this life really is in the larger scheme of things. Then, in the middle of these deep thoughts, comes something amazing to snap you right out of it. We saw loads of dolphins, herds of pilot whales, and even the occasional marlin jumping... unbelievable!

As if this trip weren't surreal enough, you never knew when a swell would open the hatch in the front of the boat and send a burlap sat filled with live chickens (or dinner as I like to call them) rolling onto the deck. The most absurd part of all happens in the middle of the night. At any given time we would all be sleeping, or at least feigning sleep, on the deck together when a freak wave would hit the boat. Imagine lying in a sheet and having a bucket of cold water dumped all over you... The reaction is universal. You sit up as quickly as possible and the only sound you can make comes from a rapid inhalation, you are soaked. Then you look around the boat in the dark because surely someone else must be in this same predicament... but no. This gigantic wave has somehow managed to hit only you and left everyone else dry. You have to smile, though, because this is just too ridiculous to actually be happening, and your sadistic side knows that they are going to get it too (they all did). So you do the only thing you can, you go back to feigning sleep on this hard, and now entirely soaked deck.

August 4th,

I am not sure how I will remember Indonesia. Sometimes its like I'm outside myself listening as I rave to others about how incredible this country has been. It HAS been great, and there is no doubt that it was an adventure. Sometimes the memories don't seem to line up with the facts, though. Living so close to the ocean inspires some pretty deep thought, but I don't remember getting that "there is a god moment" or any butterflies in my stomach when I took in the view. Dad says that you are either a mountain person or a water person. After a month on the water, I feel closer to the middle. I guess I'll just have to wait and see how time shapes my memories of this place.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Hong Kong Phooey!

"This city is a melee of the senses!" Lisa said that to me on our first night out after saying goodbye to the ODFL kids. I realize that I am making a habit of begining my postings with a quote, but this statement has stuck with me. It sums up my experience in Hong Kong so well that I had to repeat it in the introductory paragraph. Please allow me to paint a picture of this city after dark.

Its sometime after midnight and you are sitting on a stool in a purple bar filled with hipster Chinese people. You are the only white person in the place, yet no one, including the bartenders, will acknowledge that you are not invisible. This could plausibly be because they do not speak English, but you know that the real reason is because your first beer, cheapest on the menu, cost all the money you had. Normally, you would have already left for home feeling a little disgruntled, but the entertainment is so over the top that its enough to keep you in your chair for a while. There is a band play all the "hits" of the 70s and 80s... Here are some of the songs from their set list, hopefully you will be able to understand why I used the quotation marks. "Smoke on the Water" by God knows who, Air Supply's classic "I'm All Out of Love," "Careless Whisper" by WHAM and of course, my dad's personal favorite, "Hotel California" by The Eagles. Why does everyone love The Eagles so much? I don't get it. Please do not forget that this is in Hong Kong and all those stereotypical accents that you've heard all your life are making it exceedingly difficult to keep a straight face as you observe this strange scene. The 40+ year old business men dancing and jumping up and down to the encore choice of "Mone Mone" does not make it easy either.

But this is Hong Kong, a place where everything I saw and did over the six days that I was there was... unique. Maybe I am not inspired, maybe my time there was too short, or maybe I am still not far enough removed from it all, but I don't know how to describe these days "classic" format for a story. By that, I mean that I am choosing out of laziness to skip the beginning middle and end in favor of relaying a few of my favorite points.

I'll start by describing our hotel, the Chung King Mansion. Please do not be fooled by the name, I do not understand why this building has not either been condemned or fallen down on its own recognisance. Its a dingy skyscraper in the middle of downtown with budget accomodation on every floor. Have you ever shown up to the hotel where you reserved a room, one that charged you a booking fee, only to find that it is a pile of rubble? I'm guessing not, but now I can say that I have. We were forced to improvise and find a new place right off the bat. The ground floor was a dirty maze of shops that all sell the same crap. Each store looks identical to the next and you can't help but wonder constantly where you are. The population in this building is almost entirely African people wearing brightly colored Dashikis (Sp?), which I found odd. There are only two elevators that service all 16 floors and there is always a line to get in. I don't mean to be morbid, but they feel like a steel coffin. You stuff yourself in there with WAY too many stinky people,take a deep breath as the doors close, make peace with God, and pray that the cords don't snap before your floor. What can you do, though? These are the only cheap places in town.

Our room was actually okay. By okay, I mean it didn't smell THAT bad, and it was semi clean, in that I never saw any cockroaches. So it exceeded our extremely low expectations. We even had an alarm clock. It went off every morning at 9:05am and sounded just like a jackhammer outside our window... actually, it was a jackhammer outside our window. They were building the hotel that stole my booking fee on the floor below us. There was at even a sense of security (our door locked), or so we thought. The lobby is the classic hotel style where you drop off your key each time you leave and pick it up when you return. For this to work, though, you need someone at the reception at all times. I ran up to the room after dinner one night, only to find that I was the sole person in the lobby. Hmmmm.... who is guarding our key? So I started shuffling my feet, clearing my throat, and anything else that might alert someone of my presence... nothing.... "Hello? ... still nothing... "HEELLLOOOO!!!!!" ... If anyone was there, they would have heard me. So I climbed over the desk, searched through all the drawers, found my room key, opened my door, grabbed all my valuables, and returned the key where I found it without anyone knowing what had happened. This became the routine for the remainder of the trip... Don't ask why I didn't just hold onto the key.

My friend Trevor lives in Hong Kong and was our host each evening. For those that don't know Trevor, he is my first friend. We grew up across the street from each other and used to be inseparable. My passing through was a long overdue chance to catch up. It was also an opportunity for me to tease him about how he always cheated at Monopoly and never let me play with his coolest toys. So I got some closure. I can't think of a better way to discover a city than to do it with someone that already has. Trevor took us all over. We bartered in street markets and ate 5 or more meals a day, during which time I tried jellyfish, 1000 year old egg, frog ovaries, and God knows what else. I also redefined the word "spicy." I spent 6 straight days with sweat rolling down my face, rarely because of the humidity.

Did I mention that you can drink beer in the streets? Convenience stores sell it on every corner. Also, I'd like to reiterate that it was the middle of the monsoon. After 3 weeks of the "monsoon" in Nepal, I thought I knew what to expect... I was wrong. It rained CONSTANTLY, and I use that word in its literal definition. But it added to the surreality of everything we did. We spent more than one night wandering aimlessly under neon lights in the rain. We would stare up at it all with an umbrella in one hand and a beer in the other... I can think of worse things.

It was a great time and I was sad to leave. Not that sad, though, because our next destination was Indonesia. Of course, we stayed out all night before our flight taking shots in a -20 degree freezer while wearing fur coats and dancing to a Filipino band as they played "Come on Eileen." I'm entirely too old to rally after that sort evening, I don't know if anyone is that young. But who could pass up an experience like that? As if that wasn't enough to make us miss our flight, we only gave ourselves an hour to go through customs in Malaysia before catching our connection. We got a lot of angry looks as we held our American passports up like badges cut 400 people in line. We may have had to make a scene, and we kept the plane waiting on the runway for a half hour just for us, but we made it. They even reopened the luggage rack for our bags. I'd love to write more about my time here in Indonesia. It has been wild, but I sense that this chapter is not yet complete. Stay tuned.

Sunday, July 6, 2008


There are a few new pics in the Nepal ODFL link... I'll upload more when I get a chance.

"Mike...Mike," these words are among the loud noises coming from the "cool kids" in the back of the bus. My seat, as usual, is in the very front. You may recall from your days in high school that this row is specifically reserved for dorks and teachers... its a perfect fit for me. I've made a policy of never answering the first time someone calls my name, so I give it a second to see if this kid, whose name is Katie in this instance, can find their own answer to whatever question they may have... "Mike... Mike!!!" Apparently she cannot. I turn my head back and make I eye contact. This wordless response is my way of letting her know that I am listening, but also that I know where this conversation is headed. "Will it rain in the village?" Its the monsoon season here in Nepal and rains every day so I know that she is joking. All good jokes, however, start with a grain of truth. When we first got here, I made the mistake of pointing out that many questions in this seemingly endless chorus could be answered before they get to me... But they love to tease me so the number of silly questions has reached astronomical proportions. I always play along, first because its funny and I make a good straight man, and second because its the easiest way to keep 14 high school students that haven't showered in a week happy. These sorts of interactions were the norm for us. We laughed a lot... it was usually at my expense.

It took us just over 36 hours of planes and layovers to reach Kathmandu. A combination of sleep deprivation and the fact that it is not possible to get much farther from home made the culture shock run rampant. My first impressions when we stepped out of the airport are that its hotter, darker and muggier than I remember. The ongoing sanitation strike in Kathmandu means more smells and piles of garbage than usual in the narrow streets. My feelings of apprehension blended nicely with the humidity in the air. There are sixteen people on this trip, one teacher, fourteen students from California, and me. I am the only one that has been here before and I can't help but wonder what they are thinking if these are my impressions. Thankfully, it was not a very long bus ride, and all those negative feelings were washed off of us as we entered the air conditioned lobby of the nicest hotel in Kathmandu... We are going to be OK.

If I were to provide a theme to our experiences in Nepal, it would have to be the amazing contrast that we felt as we went from one place to the next. There is no better example of this than sitting in the serenity of the courtyard in our hotel (the former Royal Palace) and listening to the muffled sounds of horns and traffic on the other side of the wall. We spent our first few days between these two extremes, venturing out into the chaotic city and enjoying the swimming pool at the hotel. The former is where the real adventure of travel lies, but it was nice to be able to leave one for the other.

It was during this time that I had my first "I'm back in Nepal" moment. We had stopped along the side of the road for no reason whatsoever, at least as far as I could tell. These sorts of things happen all the time. They could drive a person crazy if they don't go with the flow, so I found myself a seat in the mud and took in the scene. On the highway in front of me were taxis, cows, elaborately decorated semis, motorcycles, bicycles and a man herding goats... somehow no one ever gets hit (at least not as much as you would think). The pollution and sediment in the air can make your throat raw and all the buildings that I could see were covered in advertisements. Meanwhile, the bus drivers use their horns constantly. They provide the urban soundtrack here and come in all sorts of pitches and funny little jingles. On the horizon, though, is a glimpse of the other side of this country. I could see green hills stratified with rice farms. Many people would say that this scene in the distance is where "the real Nepal" is, but there is a lot to experience on the side of the road too if you just sit there and take it all in for a minute. Our next destination, however, was straight into those hills.

We left our amenities behind on day four and set out for the village of Dalsinghe (Dall-sing-gee). Our new setting was beautiful, the hills were scattered with houses and there are no roads. Its the kind of place that fills your stomach with butterflies and "there is a god" thoughts from the moment you step off of the bus. We split the kids into pairs and sent them off in various directions to meet their home stay families and explore the area. Our new accommodations were a far cry from Kathmandu. The "beds" were literally wooden planks with a thin blanket for a mattress, and there was no running water. Many of the homes kept their goats and bulls on the ground floor, so there was an omnipresent scent that is hard to describe. There was very little, if any, English spoken in the village which made for a few awkward afternoon teas... I just tried to smile a lot and play with the children as much as possible.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise, though, was to see the school that our fundraising efforts helped build. In Nepal, a little over 9000USD will buy 3 classrooms, a 25 meter well, and toilets with a septic tank. The principle difference between this trip and the one last year in Kenya was the amount of need in the area. None of these facilities were previously available to the 80 children in Dalsinghe. They would meet every day under a tree for school.

Finding ways to help build the school was difficult at first. The first question that Lisa, the other chaperon, had to answer was "how do you paint a classroom when there is no paint?" This was a major detail that was lost in translation during the preparation. It wasn't until the 3rd day of work that the paint arrived and the kids were happy to see it. We had been digging trenches and hauling bricks in the sweltering heat the entire time. Please make sure that your mental picture of our trip so far includes sweaty pink faces and the entire village coming out to watch us work.

Our routine in the village was as follows. We woke each day with the sun, or the roosters, whichever came first, ate breakfast, painted, played with/tickled/chased/tossed/caught children, lunch, and more of the same in the afternoon. The day's transition into evening is the best time to sit back and reflect. The homes in the hills become dots of lights and the darkness is intermixed with fireflies... everywhere. It was a magical backdrop and we always made time to stare for a while before heading back to our families and "beds." The only bad part of days like these is that, like all good things, they have to end... damn Einstein and his relativity of time.

This is not to say that everything was easy for us. The list of injuries and ailments is a long one. We had a total of 4 trips to the hospital, sporadic, yet rampant diarrhea (guess who got that one), bed bugs, two stomach infections that necessitated a plain rice only diet and anti-amoebic drugs, and a flesh eating virus that took the top layer of skin off of one girl's fingers... ouch. But we could never truly appreciate the good without a healthy dose of the bad. The kids on the trip just shrugged it all off as part of the experience... they amaze me. These kids are the future leaders of the world. Their compassion and selflessness fills me with optimism about our longevity as a species. I am happy to play a small part in their lives.

Flash forward to a new picture. Its our closing ceremony and I'm dancing, or at least attempting to dance, to the tune of a drum. The rest of the village is laughing and watching my gangly limbs fly out in every direction as I try to mimic the moves of my smaller and more graceful Nepalese friends. My parting gift from the village is a traditional hat that the men in the village wear. Its a lot like the one that Aladin wears in the movies... unfortunately it is not appropriately sized for my large American brain and feels more like a dunce cap sitting on top of my head. We were all given Hindu third eyes in chalk as part of the celebration. This was all planned... then comes a slap to the side of my face. A cute little boy in the village has grabbed a handful of the chalk for our Hindu dots and covered my face in red. He loves me and he knows that he can get away with anything... the cute ones always seem to know that. After few minutes of escalation and retaliation, the whole village, from the children to the grandmothers, are covered in red chalk. Now we're all laughing and dancing in the rain together.

Its amazing how quickly laughter can turn into tears. Young children never understand the reality of saying goodbye until its time to walk away. One little girl from the village started to cry as we prepared to walk down the road, then another, then another. Now we're all crying because maybe we didn't understand the reality of our departure either. Walking away from Dalsinghe was one of the toughest things that I have ever done.

But the trip was not over... so we did our best to keep it all in perspective and drove into the jungles in the south. We spent three days living in little bungalows listening to the melodies of the birds and insects, and riding and swimming with elephants. I can't think of a better way to finish a trip like this one. We spent our last hours together on the dirty carpet of the Hong Kong airport. We laughed and made up songs about the trip and eachother. We delayed our goodbyes as long as we could, but all good things must come to an end. Every person has said that this was the best, and the most fulfilling three weeks of their lives... I agree.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

A New Mission Statement and Another Adventure

Its one of those days. I thought I was all packed, but I should have known better. There is always a glasses case to find or a hat that inexplicably goes missing. The last few hours have consisted entirely of looking for everything and finding nothing. So I think a self imposed writing session will calm things down.

It seems like I was just back here in Minnesota, unpacking these zipoff pants and seriously considering burning both those shirts that I wore for 7 months. Now I'm happy that I didn't because they're going right back into the same old pack. They still smell... I keep telling myself that its all in my head but that's not the whole truth. Stinky memories could plausibly account for a fraction of that smell, but the aroma of India is seldom removable. Yep, I'm heading out again.

There are a few key differences in the preparation this time around. I've learned that all the anxiety I endured before the first big trip was pointless (although I'm sure that thought crossed my mind at the time), and that it doesn't really matter if I don't find those tweezers (I'm still looking, though). All of those worries that keep us up at night usually work themselves out on their own. So at the risk of coming off like one of those pretentious people that offer unsolicited life lessons, I ask you why do we still dwell on all these insignificant complaints? I'd be a rich man if I new.

I don't mean for this to be another long diatribe, though. Continuing to pointlessly write about my day to day life here in the states will cause me to lose what little audience I have before there is anything to report. Here is a short overview of the next 4ish months...

Do you remember the group of kids from California that met in Kenya and wrote about last July? Ok I knew that was a stretch. Here's their abbreviated story. They have started their own non-profit, One Dollar For Life, through the help of two teachers. Their mission is to start local chapters and raise funds in high schools throughout the country. If a student donates $1, they can truly have an affect on the quality of life for someone in the developing world ( if you are interested). Through their efforts, they raised enough money to build 5 classrooms in 5 five developing countries this Summer. Some of the kids feel so strongly about what they have done that they have chosen to forego their comfy beds for 3 weeks in order to travel to Nepal and help build one of these schools... They amaze me, and I am happy to be along for the ride.

Here's the kicker. My plane ticket was booked through a travel agency and has a layover in Hong Kong, China on the way back. I thought I was being facitious when I asked, "can I make my layover any longer?" Turns out that I can and I'll be in the area until early October... unbelievable.

The plan gets a little hazy from there. I'll have a traveling partner in my friend Jake for a month, but our plan is to have no plan. We've gotten travel visas for China and are working on ones for Vietnam. These always involve every type of bureaucratic BS that you can imagine. I'll spare you the rest of the details, but we checked and double checked the format on our TPS reports and they're still not quite right quite right. Then there is talk of living and working in Hawaii through August. We'll see.

So there you have it. A first chapter that I wasn't intending to write. Please keep in touch. I will too.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Rainbows and Unicorns

I'm suffering from writers block... How can you keep people interested in your story if there are no uncomfortable conditions or hidden twists? And here I thought I had a chance at being a good writer. Anyone can tell a story if the events alone can hold the audience's attention. It's relaying the info when things are good that separates a writer from a hack. I fear that I may fall into the latter category, but I'll give it a go just in case.

In short, things are good. But before I explain what I've been up to, I should elaborate on my motives behind this 7-month journey. For the benefit of those who may not know, I've always wanted to go to Nepal. And specifically, to see Mt. Everest. So much that I planned this entire journey with this trekking section as the focal point. Basically, no one but my parents would have known that. So yes, there was an underlying method to my apparent madness described through the ordeals of the previous entries. Knowing that trekking in the Himalayas was in my future has been my lifeline more than once. I am the ass and it is my carrot dangled in from of me as I stumble through India and Africa.

The time had finally come and it has been a surreal experience. My expectations were met as soon as I got on the bus for the "8 hour ride." I used the quotations because that was supposed to be the time it took to get us to Jiri (the starting point of the trek). 2 flat tires tend to add on a little, though. More like 12 hours. But nothing could have gotten us down. Do you want to know why? We rode on the roof the entire time. The road wound through the foothills up and over the passes. We made ourselves seats in the luggage and stared at the vista of mountains on the horizon. This was probably my first actual sight of Everest but I'm not counting it because I couldn't pick it out of the lineup.

So the bus was an unexpected bonus to an already incredible trip. I think I will spare my audience the details of our day-to-day activities during the walking part and lump them in together as best I can.

The trip took 21 days. We walked an average of 7-9 hours in total per day. My only criticism was that someone should give a little lecture to the Nepali culture. They are firm believers making straight lines from point A to point B. The first 7 days were spent climbing straight up a peak, then straight back down to a river. It had me dreaming of all those nice flat lake walks around the Twin Cities. And I mean straight up... no switchbacks or anything. We were given a thorough butt kicking for a while and I reached previously unheard-of amounts of sweat excretion on a daily basis.

Which leads me to another major point. How much food do you think you have to eat to avoid losing weight on a trip like this one? I'm afraid that was a genuine question because we haven't found the answer yet. Here is an example of our daily ingestion:

Breakfast- 2 egg omelet, large pancake with jam, coffee.
2nd breakfast- about 300 grams of cheese with a box of crackers.
Brunch- trail mix
Lunch- Dal Baht. This is the national dish of Nepal and deserves an explanation. It's a heaping plate of white rice, a vegetable curry, and a lentil sauce all mixed together. They keep refilling your plate until you cry or pass out (or both)... it's ok, but I miss Indian food.
Mid-afternoon Snack- usually more crackers and a snicker bar.
Dinner- At least 2 entrees and an appetizer. And don't forget the apple pie.

That was our best effort and it did no good at all... We are skinny. So much that I'm afraid of getting yelled at when I return home in a month. Sorry Dad, I tried. Please tell Jackie that we will have to double our chocolate milkshake efforts over xmas.

The trip itself was essentially two stages:

Jiri to Namche Bazaar (8 days)- Up and down and up and down until you can't take it any more. Almost no one does this part. They prefer to skip it and I understand why. More for us, though, and we enjoyed being the only tourists on the trail
Namche to Everest Base camp and back (13 days)- Entirely above tree line. 3500 meters to start, then up to 5500 meters in elevation at the highest point... I don't know how to describe the beauty of those mountains except to say that there is no way to capture it in a picture (we tried a lot, though). It's the kind of beauty that can suddenly make you want to cry and you don't know why.

I got my first real glimpse of Mt Everest watching the sunrise on October 17th. How do I remember the date? Because it marked exactly 5 months of travel to get there. How cool is that? Do you want to know what I felt when I saw it? ....Eh. It's not actually what you would expect. The others in front of it stole the show. But I did make this realization... It is true when you hear that the journey is more important than the destination. For me, it turned out to be more about getting to Everest than being there. It took me exactly 5 months to get there and seeing it made me realize just how great everything else has been along the way. Sorry about the use of an old cliche, but it was the best I could think of.

We gave ourselves 6 days of rest/internet splurging before starting another trek. Here are my questions I can't answer about all the world events we missed... When did the Rockies become good? There are fires in California? Is Hillary really going to be president? Brett Favre isn't dead? ... Really?!

So we were left with many questions on our mind, but no time to dwell on them. It was onto the 7 day Annapurna Trek, or victory lap, as we like to call it.

We treated this trip a little differently than the previous one. It was time for a new set of goals because we had already earned our merit badges for physical accomplishment. So here they are... Apple pie every night (no exceptions), 1kg of chocolate to be eaten freely, and as many fake stories and patronizing smiles to be handed out to other trekkers. Our last fake story was that I'm an aspiring Astronaut and Lindsay is a cowgirl. I saw her lasso-ing a herd from my rocket ship and we ran away together. It's more interesting than repeating the same old story about two kids from Colorado. The patronizing smile part goes a little like this... Head cocked, no teeth showing, hands on hips, preferably when you are descending a hill they are climbing. It takes some practice, but the end product is well worth it.

You may not understand our reasoning for all of this, but how else can you keep laughing if you spend everyday with the same person? We've kept it up somehow, but the material is getting a little thin. We both agree that there may be a public wrestling match of sibling sized proportions in our futures. Our conversations have recently dwindled down to arguments over whether the word "poop" is an onomonopia (you know... pooooooo...p. You can tell which side I'm on. Feel free to weigh in), or reenacting old SNL skits. The latest laugh is from the superfans (da Bears!). "Hold on! Hold on! The name of the hurricane... is Hurricane Ditka!" I'm sorry if that isn't funny for you, but it's enough to make me smile just writing it down.

28 out of the last 34 days have been spent walking and I have a great deal of respect for Lindsay (mostly newfound). Not just for putting up with me, but for the amount of pain she's been through. She started experiencing knee pain on the 2nd day of the Everest Trek and it hasn't gone away since. Anyone who can relate to that pain will tell you that the last thing you want to do with a bad knee is climb and descend mountains everyday. But she never complained. She is the toughest person that I have ever met and deserves all the credit in the world... I gave her the spirit award for the trip. You know, the one they always give the fat kid at track and field day?

This has been a hard update to write. I tried once 2 weeks ago and couldn't finish. I think it was because I hadn't gotten the closure that I was looking for. I found it on the roof of the bus riding back after our 2nd trek. It was going out the way we came in and it felt like I had finished something important. Except this time we got caught in the rain. But hey, it makes for a fitting end right?

So now it's on to bigger and better things. Maybe some White Water Rafting, or bungee jumping. We'll have to see. All I know for certain is that there is another long train trip in my future too because my flight is out of Mumbai on December 4th (that's 55 hours of trains away right now). So stay tuned because things are going to get interesting.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

A Lifetime in a Week

I think I was still in the North of India when I last wrote. The prospect of pushing "back" and checking from the previous post gives me the shivers. Waiting for these dial up connections have put years on my life. Or maybe it's just been the events of the last week.

So lets do a quick recap of Leh, or paradise as I like to call it. It's a small Buddhist village where we stayed in a guesthouse filled with beautiful gardens. Every male is a gentle old man that greets you with genuine kindness when you walk past. It sounds a little like this. "JOOOOOOOOOOOOOLLAAAAAAAAAYYYYY!!!! Jule jule jule jule." In reality, they are saying "jule," which means hello/goodbye/please/thank you in Tibetan. I loved that place. We rode camels to the border of Tibet and drove the group crazy by singing the entire score from "Aladin" (again). Yes, we are American. I've come to terms with that. The prospect of leaving a place like Leh for a place like Delhi makes you wonder what you have done wrong. Maybe it's from a past life. That's what a Buddhist might say.

Delhi was Delhi all over again, but at least we knew what to expect this time. I want to add two more articles to my list of things on/in the streets. A man with elephantitis of his "you know what," and human excrement. Yes human... and I am winning the race for how many times we can step in it in our sandals. Or losing. Let's just say I've done it more than once.

But I've described Delhi before so let's get to the point. Our plan was to find a flight to Kathmandu and get out as fast as possible. That should be easy right? WRONG! Here's a little known fact. There is not one seat available on ANY flight to Kathmandu from ANYWHERE in India until mid-October... I didn't see that coming. After an hour or two of fretting, we concocted a plan to make a trip out of it. Here is a small overview of the immediate future for us from that point. Train to Agra (Taj Mahal), overnight train to Varanasi (Ganges River), overnight train to Gorukphur (shithole), bus to border, bus to Chitwan Nat'l Park in Nepal. Four full days of travel in all and some experiences that have put greyhairs on my head.

So this is my opinion of Agra. "Rickshaw! Rickshaw! Postcard! Postcard! Where are you going? Where are you going?" This was the chorus that followed us through the streets. We drew a lot of attention and only deserved a small fraction of it. But what can you expect? We were in the most "touristy" place in India. To not see it coming would be like visiting Mt Rushmore and acting surprised to see cheesy T-shirts and small plasitc sculptures for sale. That being said, however, the Taj Mahal was worth checking out. Every piece of marble is perfectly handcarved and placed. It suited my OCD mind too because the structure is perfectly symetrical down to the millimeter. We whiled away most of the day taking extra goofy pics and causing some general distress among the middle aged and older demographic of tourists that surrounded us.

We thought we could save some stress by adding a layover night to our journey and sleeping in a bed in Agra. It didn't exactly work out that way. The plumbing in our hotel went awry somehow that evening while we slept. We were greeted with an unpleasant sight from the hallway in the morning and it was the smell that actually woke us. Bad omen? Maybe.

Let's just skip the events of the rest of our 2nd day in Agra for this post... I wouldn't mind having those hours of my life back.

So we got out of town in search of the next big adventure. I should point out the obvious here and say that trains are not the easiest place to sleep. They stop every hour or so and men walk up and down the hallway yelling "chai!!!" I would like to insert a sidenote here that I love my mother. She gave me a small stash of sleeping pills a long time ago and I found my emergency to use them. She is the reason why I made it through.

Varanasi takes an extreme amount of patience to enjoy. This city is overflowing with people and the Ganges river is not much of a sight, although it does have record amounts of fecal matter. But, it is the place of origin for the Hindu religion and people travel from everywhere to bathe in the Ganges. We spent the day fighting off cute little girls trying to sell us Karma candles and taking in all the vibrant colors. I hope I never have daughters because they will walk all over me. They can sense my weakness because they know I think their cute.

The torrential rains started shortly after dark and we were forced to head to the Varanasi train station a few hours early. We had heard that it was busy, but I think I can safely say that is the biggest understatement I have ever heard. There are literally piles of people. Train stations are a good place for people watching. It was mostly just people watching us, though. Here is a list of things we observed during our brief visit: thousands of Indian people, 4 white tourists (including us), and a dirty begging child that grabbed us in the dark when the power went out. We found a place to sit and played cards. Not because we wanted to, but because we had to. We ignored the stares and our play was only interupted twice. Once by an old man wearing a green plastic bag for a hat. He stopped, walked up to us, put his hand on his knees and his face about 12 inches from our. His stare was like he was looking at fish in a tank. It's hard to prepare for that sort of interaction. Here is our dialogue:

Lindsay: Mike, what do I do?
Mike: I guess just ignore him.
L: How?!!
M: Well, let's try to think of the reasons why we shouldn't kill ourselves.


M: Ok, I have one. We have some gum to chew. That's it, though.

He did leave eventually and we have a new inside joke to laugh about. The second interuption was one that makes you think a little. There was a cow making the rounds through the station. Who owned him? Which train was he riding? Which bunk would he be on? How can he avoid stepping on people here when I can't? Here's the tricky part, though. He was on the middle platform. That means he would have had to go up and down a flight of stairs and a walkway to get to where we saw him. Hmmmmmm. Another thought nugget to occupy my time.

Let's speed up the pace here. Our train did come (one hour late), Gorukphur IS a terrible town and there is no reason to go there, the bus to the border of Nepal was 6 hours and not the 2 we thought it was, we endured four hours at the border waiting for our crowded bus to leave, and yes, we DID get a flat tire 1km out of town. It rained the entire time too. But we made it to Chitwan National Park. All we wanted was a shower and a good night sleep. There is no way to describe how dirty we were, so I won't. We didn't get it. There was no water pressure and I slept in a bed with blood stains.

I'm sorry for being so graphic but I'm trying to paint a picture here. Things needed to start getting better soon... They did. We switched hotels and the sun came back out (in my soul and outside). Then we spent 3 days in a village in South Nepal. We took canoe safaris and jungle walks. We rode elephants in search of rhinos and tigers, then we swam with them and they sprayed me with water from their trunks. I had just enough time to visit the elephant breeding center and feed the babies cookies before catching a bus to Kathmandu (where I am now).

Together, we feel like we have been tested. We passed, but barely. I feel like I've lost a little innocense along the way. But the upside is that we are weathered and these Nepali touts and scam artists here in Kathmandu seem soft to me. They don't know what we've been through to get here. The end product is that I have this feeling like everything is going to be alright now.

We leave tomorrow to trek to the base of Mt Everest for the next 22-30 days. We've earned it. Hopefully the next post will be all gum drops and lolly pops. Boring for you, but sweet relief for me. Wish us luck and I'll be in touch.