Tag Archives: People
10 January, 2017

New Year’s in Los Angeles

Nobody goes to Los Angeles. They may say they do, but no. Those friends of yours who vacation in Santa Monica and Hermosa, or  one time partied in Hollywood or Beverly Hills? They probably never went to L.A. either. The closest they likely came to Los Angeles, the city, was a Lakers game. On the eve before New Year’s Eve, coming straight from the airport, we went to L.A. The city. Downtown. The only part of L.A. I’d ever been. The part that continues, to this day, to offer visitors a glimpse of what Manhattan, New York looked like thirty years ago, before Disney and the M&M Store moved in and squeezed the homeless and needle-pushers out.

Our good friends Katrina and Alan return to Los Angeles, the county, most winters to visit Alan’s family who still reside there. For as long as we’ve known them, we’ve been treated to stories of the incredible New Year’s Day feast that Alan’s mother assembles in Japanese tradition. Anyone who has read this blog for long likely knows the attachment I have for Japanese culture and food. So it should come as no surprise when I say that I’ve been angling for us to spend New Year’s in Los Angeles, with Alan’s family, for several years.

But the first stop was downtown.

Come for the Drinks, Skip the Food

There are times to wander around aimlessly, cafe-and-bar-hopping your way through a new place. Then there are times when it pays to have a plan, a local guide, and some friends to share the experience with. Our trip to Los Angeles, a sprawling massive region where it takes no less than 45 minutes to get anywhere, would have, at the least, required a lot more work on our part if not for Katrina’s planning — and their family sedan.

Still, I have to admit that I was a bit surprised — and concerned — when it was revealed that our first stop would be downtown. At a cafeteria, no less.

My prior L.A. experience consisted entirely of visits to the convention center and shuttle-vans to and from my hotel on Grand. I knew enough to know that downtown L.A. was 1) a dump, and 2) not a place anyone ever went. That being said, Clifton’s Cafeteria, the “World’s Largest Cafeteria” from “The Golden Age of Cafeterias” (their words) is a heck of a sight. Massive redwoods and boulders, crystals, and plant life give the towering multi-story cafeteria a mystical outdoorsy feeling while somehow avoiding the cheesiness of Rainforest Cafe. The cafeteria’s Forest Glen setting is said to have inspired Walt Disney.

The Atrium at Clifton’s Cafeteria. Photo from www.discoverlosangeles.com

But while the food itself, bland home-style country staples, could be easily forgotten (if, unlike me, your stomach allows it) the numerous bars occupying the bulk of Clifton’s space in the old rundown theater district on South Broadway, are sure to be remembered. A modest dress code — no sneakers or t-shirts, look spiffy — is enforced for the upper bars where Art Deco decor and period-dressed servers and bartenders await. Drinks are pricey, at $14 each, but the speakeasy-vibe of the “secret” Pacific Seas tiki bar (hidden atop a stairwell behind a mirrored false-wall) adds a sense of intrigue to the night. Unfortunately, the 60s-era Chris-Craft speedboat in the bar offered no additional seating and we retreated to the spacious, yet frigid, Gothic Bar. A fine spot.

Inside The Last Bookstore. Photo from www.welikela.com

From there we walked a few blocks over to The Last Bookstore, a shop I had just heard about that week. The lower floor is like any other indie bookstore, though with an expansive rare books section that, unfortunately for me, was primarily art books (though they did have a 1st edition Catcher in the Rye in not-good condition). But upstairs, they’ve piled their books in such a way as to create several book sculptures and other installations that are truly worth visiting. There are also several art galleries along the walkway and a tunnel of LED-lit books you can walk through which was very neat. I picked up Silence, the book that inspired the upcoming Martin Scorsese film about the Christian Japanese from the early 17th century. It just so happens that one of the characters in my work-in-progress is also from that era.

Pre-Partying Around Hollywood

We were staying at a house we rented on AirBnb, near Alan’s family in Torrance. This location was not only close to his parents, but also right near the King’s Hawaiian restaurant and bakery, an absolutely fantastic place to have breakfast. Nobody bakes a cake like the Hawaiians. A fact we were reminded of later that day, after watching some football, when Alan’s parents surprised Kristin with a guava, passion fruit, and lime birthday cake that was even better than it sounds.

But yes, it was Kristin’s birthday and it was New Year’s Eve, and we had plans. Despite the unseasonable cold and drizzle, we donned our suits and dresses and went out for a night on the town. First stop: a stroll down Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills. All of the shops were closed, the tourists had mostly gone home, and we were able to enjoy some nice window shopping at our leisure. We have many of the same shops in nearby Bellevue, but luxury retailers aside, Rodeo is just a nice street to go for a walk, especially when everything is lit up for Christmas.

Rodeo Drive. Photo from www.viceroyhotelgroup.com

From there, we cut through a neighborhood of gated, outrageously expensive homes to Sunset Boulevard, and up to Yamashiro, a Japanese restaurant and bar in the style of an Edo-period palace. It’s tremendous looking and offers a fantastic view of greater L.A. from atop its hill in Hollywood Heights. Sadly, only those staying for the New Year’s Eve party (with $50 cover charge) could get in. We merely wanted an early evening pre-dinner drink so had to move along. Definitely a place to return to in the future.

Fortunately, we found a great bar right on Hollywood Boulevard, smack dab between the restaurant we were eating at and the Egyptian Theater, where the party we had tickets for was located. Some drinks and free tequila shots later, we went to The Musso and Frank Grill, an old steakhouse from 1919 that was a frequent haunt of A-listers during Hollywood’s golden age. We spotted no celebrities (nor were we looking for any) but we had a terrific meal. Veal, filet mignon, prime rib, and lamb chops were on order, and each were delicious. I’m still partial to Seattle’s Metropolitan Grill f0r when it comes to high-end steak houses, but Musso and Frank was certainly a cut above Ruth’s Chris and Morton’s, not just in food, but ambiance too.

The four of us at Musso and Frank Grill.

Scamming Like It’s 2017

Our friends have had great luck attending themed NYE parties in L.A. on prior years, usually getting tickets ahead of time through GoldStar, a membership discount site for events and concerts. This year, we settled on a party at the Egyptian Theater. VIP tickets, at a discounted $70 each, were supposed to get us into an extra area or two. In reality, despite arriving by 10:30, the main indoor space was jam packed. The lines for drinks (open bars, included in price) stretched around the block and back to 2012. We waited and pushed, and eventually got in. Only to find the main space packed with hundreds of people, far beyond fire safety codes, and with no chance of getting a drink. I descended the stairs in a search for a restroom and stumbled across the room our yellow wristbands were supposed to get us into.

But instead of going in, we made the mistake of going back outside, convinced the VIP area was somewhere else. It wasn’t.

And then, in those minutes that we were back outside in the frigid outdoor courtyard area, the line to get in had grown so long that it was effectively a mob scene. A stationary stampede of humanity pressing against a single open door. For forty minutes we stood in line trying to get back inside the space we shouldn’t have left. Now and then a staff member would escort a private party of six inside, those who paid thousands of dollars to reserve a table. The “bottle service” option.

It was 11:40. There was no getting inside. For anyone. The wristbands mattered nothing. Everyone had one.

We went back to the bar near the entrance and got another pair of drinks. But first, a trip to the port-a-potties. Formal wear, frigid temps (for L.A.) and five port-a-potties with a line of over 40 people waiting for them. Nevermind.

We were furious. The party was a complete scam. The outdoor music was horrible, they sold too many tickets, had too few bars, too few restrooms. And the inside area was a deathtrap, crammed with far too many people. Everyone we talked with was furious.

Determined to not be in line for a port-a-potty at midnight, or stewing in our fury, we exited the scam of a party and ran back across the street to the hole-in-the-wall bar we were in before. We made our way to the back room (the place was now packed) and quickly made some new friends and toasted and danced in the new year.

Alan graciously stopped drinking at one in the morning and was able to drive the rest of us home at three.

A great night saved from disaster.

The Japanese Feast for 2017

Ignoring the leftover birthday cake I munched down at 3am, we began our 2017 in traditional Japanese style, with ozoni, a brothy soup featuring a big piece of mochi. Ozoni is the obligatory first meal of the new year. Personally, I’m not a fan of mochi unless its got a scoop of ice cream inside it, but the broth was very tasty and well, of course we were going to eat it.

The four of us excused ourselves over to Culver City where, right across from Sony Pictures, is a bar that serves as the homebase for Seahawks fans in southern California. Dee-jays played music and emceed during commercial breaks, free blue and green mystery shots were served at halftime, and dozens of displaced Seahawks fans cheered and jeered the victory over the lowly Forty-Niners.

Back at the family home, a table with tens of dishes awaited us, as did many of Alan’s family members. In addition to comfort food like grilled pork and chicken, BBQ shrimp, char-siu, and gyoza, there were plenty of specific foods and dishes served for their symbolic meaning. Daikon, burdock root, and carrots — all root vegetables — were served to strengthen the family roots. Dried kelp, kombu, was served to inspire joy. Tiny dried fish (which were served fried and really tasty), gomame, are eaten for good health. Lotus Root, renkon, was cut in round slices to symbolize the Buddhist wheel of life. Black beans are also eaten for health while a very tasty chestnut dish signifies mastery of success.

Just some of the food for the New Year’s Day feast!

Kristin and I stayed away from the herring roe which is eaten to increase fertility. We did partake in the carp which is eaten for its indomitable spirit.

And on and on it went. So. Much. Food. Deserving special mention were the caramel macaroons which Alan’s nephew made. Macaroons far lighter and more delectable than any we had in Paris.

New Year’s Day had traditionally been a non-event for us. A day to relax and clean up from the holidays, perhaps. But this year it was so much more. We got to spend it with great friends and their wonderful family. We ate delicious multi-cultural food, learned a bit about its significance, and swapped travel stories and more. It was a fantastic day, I won’t soon forget.

Six Flags and a Beach Cruise

We finished up our time in L.A. with a trip to Six Flags Magic Mountain on Monday, but only after a breakfast stop at Gardena Bowl. You read that right, we went to a bowling alley for breakfast. This is where having a local comes in handy, as there’s simply no way we would have known of such a place. In fact, Gardena Bowl was where Alan used to bowl in the 80s and its Hawaiian-Asian cafe is a local hot spot. We had to wait for a table at 9am, but the wait was worth it, for the sausage and egg mix.

Magic Mountain was cold and crowded so after realizing that the lines were over two hours for each ride, we scurried back to the entrance booth and bought the Flash Pass. It ended up nearly tripling the entrance fee per person, but we never had to wait for more than ten minutes, and most times we just walked right on to the rides. Still, because we’re not awful people, we did feel bad about bypassing a three-hour wait to board immediately. Alas, we only attend these amusement parks every few years. It’s worth it.

Tuesday, our last day in Los Angeles, was spent at the beach. We rented bikes in Hermosa and rode north six miles past Manhattan Beach to El Segundo. L.A. County has a paved bike path that stretches from Palos Verde, south of Redondo Beach, thirty miles north to Malibu, rarely crossing any streets and routinely swept free of sand. We didn’t go far on account of the bad cold I had caught over the weekend, but we got a nice taste of the Strand and the hundreds of beach volleyball courts set up near Manhattan Beach, the dozens of surfers braving the cold, and the oodles of jaw-dropping homes perched above the beach.

The Strand bike path going past Manhattan Beach. Photo from www.caskeyandcaskey.com

We didn’t have time to visit Venice Beach, but did have lunch at the famed Santa Monica Pier, the terminus of Route 66. An excellent way to cap off our L.A. trip.

California Kindness

One thing that I would be remiss not to mention is just how friendly everyone in L.A. was. I always noticed this during my many business trip to Southern California, but it bears repeating. I can’t stress how nice it was to spend all that time, often in very crowded places — bars, amusement parks, nightclubs, and restaurants — with so many friendly, polite people. People of all walks of life, of all nationalities. Every one of them, from fast food workers to other club goers, were all so nice and approachable and friendly. No posturing. No distant coldness. No aggression or agitation. Just a polite mellow that made the whole experience so much more enjoyable than if it had been nearly anywhere else I’d ever been or lived.

In some ways, this added an extra layer of Japaneseyness to the weekend. After all Japan and southern California are the only places I’ve ever been where employees and guests alike seem to focus on making sure that everyone’s experience is as great as it can be. There’s a quality of life in SoCal that is hard to replicate anywhere, and it’s not just for those in the multi-million dollar homes on the beach or in the hills. Its ingrained in the people. The people who might be taking your order. The people you might be waiting in line behind. The people you might strike up conversation with at a bar. The people are just friendly.

Such a shame that it’s noteworthy.

Special Thanks: To Alan and Katrina for being such great friends and for inviting us to join you in your family’s New Year’s celebration. To Alan’s parents, Aiko and Sam, for being such gracious hosts. Thank you so much for everything! To the rest of Alan’s family, thank you all for making us feel so welcome. We hope to see you all again soon! And last but not least, thanks to Jeremy and Jessica for watching our beloved Juniper while we were gone. You’re the best!

3 November, 2015

India Time in Sri Lanka

We saw the new high-rise buildings of Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital city, hours before we reached land. And it would be hours still before we saw them from the city streets. Our first encounter with Sri Lanka, like those of many who visit neighboring India, was one spent waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Though we reached the dock at 2:30 p.m. and, along with the two other passengers, were ready to disembark, the officials from immigration didn’t arrive until 5:00 p.m. They drove us to the port’s immigration office and disappeared with our passports, leaving us in the passenger van, the sliding door left open to better feel the humidity and heat, I suppose. Several small bugs made their way inside, the first we had seen in over two weeks at sea, and a rather large rat hobbled across the edge of the wharf, injured, and disappeared down a drain. Thirty minutes later, the man returned with our passports, only for his colleague to realize a mile down the road that we were checked into the country as members of the ship’s crew, not as passengers. We had to turn around. Another twenty minutes were spent waiting for the proper entry stamp. No one asked to see the electronic visa confirmation we were told to purchase for $30 USD each; nobody looked for the banking statements Kristin underwent tongue-twisting gymnastics to get a hotel clerk to print for us. No forms were necessary. Immigration personnel didn’t even bother to match our faces with our passports.

Entering the port of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Entering the port of Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Our minders from the shipping company, two drivers upon whose reliance wasn’t an option, asked where we wanted to go. “Someplace we could walk around and see the city, a restaurant and maybe some temples or shops. Mostly just a restaurant,” I said thinking a market or a downtown core. The older passengers with us made it clear they were going to stick to our side; that I was to lead us, whether I wanted to or not was of no concern to them. It was already past 6:00 p.m. and we had gotten used to eating our dinner at 5:30 aboard the ship. Also, I’m of the belief that a meal in a local restaurant is arguably the best way to experience a new location when pressed for time after dark. We’d have more time for sightseeing come morning.

Leaving the port of Colombo for the booming city proper, where in just five short years a who’s who of multi-national hotels and boutiques have sprung up, one has to pass through a checkpoint into the commercial High Security Zone. Armed security guards in military outfits manned the checkpoint, presumably to inspect vehicles for terrorist threats – the fear of another clash with the Hindu minority Tamil Tigers has diminished, but remains a possibility. These security guards, in reality, serve another purpose: to collect baksheesh. The guard only need approach the door to the rear passenger compartment for a flash of cash to suddenly find his hand. I feel so safe. The bribes were handed out by our minders, both coming and going, as we passed the checkpoint.

Colombo Harbor surroundings.

Colombo Harbor surroundings, outside the Immigration Office.

We were asked if we wanted to eat in a hotel, “perhaps the Ramada?” No, definitely not, we explained. Someplace you would go. No western food. Sri Lankan food. “Take us where you would take your wife for her birthday,” I said, a line that has landed us great recommendations in other countries. The two men conversed in the local language, Sinhala, then turned and said that they had the perfect place in mind. Ten minutes later, we found ourselves deposited outside a small three-story shopping mall, with the instructions to head down the stairs to the food court. “Very good Sri Lankan food. But, if you no like, they have everything.” They’d be back to pick us up in two hours.

Whiskey. Tango. Foxtrot.

Our one night in Sri Lanka and with little choice in the matter, we got summarily dumped at a God-forsaken shopping mall. Even now, the morning after, I am straining to express our anger in PG terms, just in case my cousin’s children still read these posts in their geography class.

School kids lining up to go home in Sri Lanka.

School kids lining up for a tour in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

A shopping mall, really? Simmering with frustration, we descend the escalator and find a food court that wouldn’t be out of place in New Jersey, only with slightly more ethnic offerings: the “Tennessee Fried Chicken” being to Sri Lankans what the equally dubious “Panda Express” is to us in the States. We approached the Sri Lankan restaurant, pointed at one of the display combinations, and were, before we knew it, searching for an empty table encumbered by heaping plates of spicy chicken, yellow rice, roti, and a number of vegetable dishes. The meal was tasty, quite so in fact, and we were given a 10% discount for using a credit card, a promotion especially appealing to those of us with no local currency (two dinners and two bottles of water cost roughly $8 USD). Nevertheless, the meal didn’t suppress my frustration over an opportunity lost/stolen.

Kristin and I spent the next hour pacing the shopping mall as closing time neared. A bookstore occupied our attention for a little while, but the clerk was preparing to leave. We passed Reebok and Adidas shops, an electronics store dedicated to the JBL/Harman-Kardon brands, numerous clothing and jewelry stores, and finally whiled away fifteen minutes pretending to be shopping for shoes in a Clark boutique.

We eventually found a café outside the mall and decided to kill off the remaining hour over dessert and tea. After all, we were in former Ceylon, one of the largest producers of tea in the world, second only to China (Ceylon changed its name to Sri Lanka in 1972, twenty-four years after shedding their colonial status, but plenty of signage still uses the exotic-sounding Ceylon in its messaging).

Sunset from Colombo Port.

At least we got to view a pretty sunset while waiting. And waiting.

There, in a trying-too-hard café called “Sugar”, with a veritable Benetton cast of ethnicities seated among the other tables, and with royalty-free electro-chill music playing at an inoffensive volume, Kristin and I came to realize why our minders deposited us at a shopping mall: It’s what they thought we’d want… because it’s what they’ve wanted their entire lives.

This mall could have been anywhere in the world. For us, this was a huge disappointment. We’ve ceased visiting shopping malls in this form many years ago except when absolutely necessary. Malls like this are dying off throughout America and are rarer still in Europe, but the rising middle class of the developing nations have only just begun to get a taste of them. I couldn’t help but feel that the Sri Lanka of the very near future, at least here in this sparkling-new portion of Colombo, was like the United States of the late 1980s and early 1990s.

This is the challenge of travel in the 21st century; it is so much harder to find yourself in the unfamiliar. As globalization and technology combine to create a middle class in countries that have previously not had one, they get whitewashed with a Western-branded sameness. It is why smart travelers talk about hurrying to Cuba before it’s too late. They fear that the lifted embargo means it’s only a matter of months, not years, before Havana boasts the same neon-lit fast food brands and hotels as every-town America. Of course, we can’t fault the locals for wanting the very conveniences we go on holiday to escape. We seek destinations without them not because we are so enlightened, but because we can rely on them being there for us when we return home. We travel to see another way of life, not a reflection of our own.

Nevertheless, trying to explain to locals that we didn’t bicycle halfway around the world for a Bloomin’ Onion is often met with incredulity.

We asked our friendly Sri Lankan waiter where we should go, given that we have less than twenty-four hours in port. He replied with a list of touristy destinations that Kristin and I had already vetoed during a cursory glance at Trip Advisor: elephant parks, museums, and more shopping malls. Alas, we settled on a temple, the oldest and biggest Buddhist temple in Colombo. It opened at 9am. We thanked him and hurried to meet our drivers. Foolishly, I must add.

The gantry cranes are up and the tugs in place... time to head back to sea.

The gantry cranes are up and the tugs in place… time to head back to sea.  But first, a phone call.

Our two hours was ultimately over, only it wasn’t. We had to wait another thirty minutes before our drivers finally arrived to pick us up. No apology given, or really expected, as we came to understand very quickly that Sri Lanka runs on India Time, which is to say punctuality left with the British, to the extent that it ever existed. We chatted about Sri Lanka’s history during the drive back to our ship. There was another bribe given at the checkpoint, a brief exchange at the gate to the port, and then a meandering route through the container yard to the gangway. They’d pick us back up at 9:30 a.m. for a trip to Gangoramal Temple, to Independence Square, and to a traditional market so we could get some tea. Perfect.

Come morning, the four of us waited atop the gangway until 10:15 before finally giving up and going back to our cabins. It was no use. Shore leave was over at noon and the ship waits for nobody except the Captain himself. On a cargo ship, your time is not really your time. At least not when it comes to port calls. The Captain and the shipping agents will do their best to get you some time on shore, but no guarantees are made.

We went to the Ship’s Office to report that the four of us were all on board, surprising the Captain with our presence. He thought we were taken on shore nearly an hour earlier. Kristin explained that we had been stood-up, to which he just shook his head with annoyance and muttered, “That’s Sri Lankan Indians, for you.”

Postscript

The above text was written in a one-hour flash of fury following our being blown off by the Sri Lankan officials who were supposed to have driven us into town, or at least from the ship to the port’s gate (a one-mile gauntlet of trucks, containers, and cranes that we were forbidden from traversing on foot). It is now five hours later and, judging by the sound of the engine and the sight of the brontosaurus-like gantry cranes whose necks have been hoisted into their upright, resting position, the ship was ready to leave well over an hour ago.

That is when the very same official who stood us up this morning arrived on the ship to demand that we four passengers return to the Immigration Office in town to complete the Arrivals Declarations forms that we should have filled out yesterday. The ones I had asked about last night. So we did get to go back ashore, four hours after shore leave had ended. There, moments before our departure, we were finally handed the forms needed to legally enter the country. From conversation later, over dinner, we learned that we each checked different answers on some of the questions, such as the purpose of the trip and our embarkation port. It made no difference. They didn’t even look at the forms; it was just an exercise in bureaucratic time-wasting.

Sri Lanka… maybe another time. Probably not.

22 October, 2015

The Chair and the Stool

I stood by the table, wallet in hand, waiting for the owner of the roadside restaurant to tally up our bill. Instead, he simply wrote the number 40 on the back of a scrap of paper. “Forty lira,” I asked “for kohvalti?” I was shocked. We shared a single plate of olives, vegetables, and cheeses along with a small fry pan of eggs and had two cups of tea each. It was a standard Turkish breakfast, the likes of which we’ve had a dozen times before, always included with the cost of our hotel. Hotel stays that often cost just 100 lira in total ($33 USD). I sighed, reached into my wallet and handed over the notes, $13 USD, along with a knowing, nodding smirk that let the gentleman know that, though I may not speak the language and couldn’t argue without resorting to histrionics, I knew damn well he was taking me for a ride.

That night, in the town of Kaman, Kristin and I sat down to a dinner of soup, salad, spicy adana kebab skewers with fries, Coca-Cola, and tea. Two of everything for the two hungry cyclists. The whole meal came to the equivalent of $11 USD. For every instance in which we felt we might have been getting overcharged, there were at least two or three times when we left a restaurant completely shocked about how much food we had been served for so little money. It all balances out in the end.

Matters of money and long-term independent travel go hand in hand. No matter what your budget, you can’t enjoy much of the latter without diligent tracking of the former. Kristin and I set out to stick to an average daily budget that we soon realized would be impossible for our preferred comfort level without spending a lot of time in less expensive countries. Front-loading our trip with North America and Europe, not to mention an unexpected five-week detour to pricey Japan, has yielded an average daily expenditure more than 50% over the unrealistic amount we budgeted for. Of course, that goal budget was essentially plucked out of thin air and “proved doable” on several short trips around Washington State. It’s easy to do without when you’re heading back to the comforts of home in a few days, less so when your trip is measured in months and years instead of days or weeks; harder still when wanting to indulge in the culinary delights of western Europe.

Wealth isn't a good indicator of how hard a person works.

Typical scene at the Ubud city market in Bali where hundreds of vendors supply all manners of food to the city’s residents.

But there we were, two Americans in Turkey and soon headed to Southeast Asia. Our financial tracking sheet showed our average daily spend dropping a little bit each day. And as it did, much to our delight, our out-of-money date pushed deeper into 2016.

Some travelers we’ve met make a show of demanding the lowest price possible at all times, regardless of where they are, where they’re from, or how it makes them look. They hunt for unconscionably low prices using their superior buying power (and often the desperation of the person they’re dealing with) as a weapon and tell tales of their conquests around the hostel table for all to marvel at. The less they paid, the more they gloat. Forget paying tourist prices, these people don’t stop until they’ve stripped every penny of profit out of the equation. These people may stretch their budget further than we will, but at what cost?

A woman selling fish at a market on the island of Flores.

A woman selling fish at a market on the Indonesian island of Flores.

It’s fun to get a good deal when you’re travelling. The less you pay, the more days you can enjoy yourself. There’s nothing wrong with that. We’ve certainly marveled at some of the prices we’ve paid over the past eighteen months. But the one thing I don’t do, unless it’s part of the souvenir game, is haggle. Though I didn’t enjoy overpaying for breakfast that one morning in Turkey, I do think it’s important to sometimes take the loss gracefully and move on. Acknowledge the good fortune those of us from countries with a dominant currency are in and the inherent opportunity that exists simply from our birthplace. After all, long term travel is not something the great majority of the world’s population can ever even dream of doing. So we got charged a few bucks more than we maybe should have. So what? How many bottles of water did we buy this month for thirty cents each? Bottles that would have cost five times that in Europe or back home in the USA.

People have strong feelings about money and the economy. When we’re doing well personally, we think “the economy” is just fine. When we find ourselves out of work or fighting to get ahead, we project our own misfortune onto “the economy”.  This leaves nothing to be said of our political biases and preconceptions and the inherent geographic, skill, and educational variations in a large country. Not being an economist, I don’t really know (nor really care) how to accurately assess the condition of a nation’s economy. But I do know that, despite all of the political cheering and finger-pointing that goes on back home, the US Dollar is at or near an all-time high against a slew of the world’s currencies. If the US economy is as bad as I sometimes hear people say, then the rest of the world is doing even worse and we should still consider ourselves fortunate on the grand scale that is Earth.

It's easy to get frustrated by the people always trying to sell you something on the beaches in the Mediterranean and in Bali, but they're just trying to earn a living. We decided quickly that it was far more enjoyable to chat them up and maybe buy something instead of being rude or getting flustered.

It’s easy to get frustrated by the people always trying to sell you something on the beaches in the Mediterranean and in Bali, but they’re just trying to earn a living. We decided quickly that it was far more enjoyable to chat them up and maybe buy something instead of being rude or getting flustered.

Early this past summer a series of articles was published to The New York Times about the working conditions of nail salons throughout New York City. The gist of it was that the workers were being heavily exploited through a laundry list of illegal/unethical practices. I was very interested in some of the discussion that followed: women, customers of these various salons, were wondering what they should do. Should they boycott the businesses? Should they over-tip? Should they just go about things as normal and pretend they didn’t know any better? Many of the readers acknowledged that, by using these Asian (mostly Thai and Vietnamese) nail salons, they knew they were getting a really good service at a cost that was a fraction of that which a Caucasian owned and operated boutique salon would charge. They felt bad about that, but still wanted those low prices.

Ignoring the legal ramifications of the story in New York, the issue reminded me of a series of internal struggles I dealt with while in Indonesia earlier this year. Kristin and I had taken to getting frequent hour-long massages while in Bali. One day, we were asked if we also wanted a 30-minute foot rub after our massage. The massage was 70,000 IDR, the foot rub was going to be an extra 30,000 IDR for a total of $7.69 USD plus tip at the exchange rate at the time (it’d be even cheaper now). We said yes.

We took our seats in cushioned armchairs alongside three Chinese people and two Australians and sat back and enjoyed the relaxing comfort of a professional foot and calf massage. If you’ve never had someone spend thirty minutes professionally massaging your lower legs and feet with lotions and oils, it is even better than it sounds. But despite the wonderful sensation, I couldn’t help but feel bad about sitting in this nice elevated armchair as the young Javanese lady squatted down on a tiny stool and worked so hard to provide such an unnecessary, gratuitous service for such, through first-world eyes, a ridiculously low sum of money.

It didn’t feel right. I felt uncomfortable. It smacked of Imperialism, what with the visual of us, the moneyed tourists, sitting in the nice comfortable chairs on high, and the meager worker squatting over our bare feet. I looked around to those sitting alongside me: Kristin was dozing off, the Chinese people were playing with their phones and the Australians were doing likewise. A phalanx of young dark-haired, dark-skinned Indonesians squatted before us, working nonstop through the day and until late at night to give as many massages a day as possible.

Massage shops line many of the streets in the touristy areas of Bali and the women (and some men) call out to everyone who passes by. Some get desperate if business is slow. One grabbed me by the arm and pleaded with ever-lowering prices when I declined (I was late meeting Kristin for dinner). The prices are essentially standard, all of them offering an hour of pampering to the average tourist for the price of a McDonald’s combo meal; American prices, not European (Mickey D’s is far more expensive in Europe, no doubt part of the reason for the slimmer waistlines in continental Europe).

I know there are those who, upon reaching success, like to think it was all their own hard work that got them where they are. Hard work. People like to say that if you work hard you can be anything and have all your dreams come true. You just have to work hard for it. I’ve not seen many people work harder than these massage girls in Bali. Yet, there they were on the stool. And there we were on the chairs. I worked hard, was very good at what I did, but I didn’t work as hard as these girls do. I didn’t spend twelve hours a day, hunched over, working my hands and fingers and forearms into numbness for such little gain. The reason we’re in the chair and they’re on the stool is one of dumb luck. We won the birthplace lottery, being born in a first-world country (or to one of the right families in a modern China), whereas they didn’t. That’s it. We were born on third, as the saying goes. And we shouldn’t exploit those who were lucky to get hit by pitch.

“So, Doug, what are you going to do about it?” I asked myself.

I went surfing the next day and spent the better part of three hours thinking about that question. The answer that I came up with, which I’d like to now repeat as a reminder to myself as we prepare to spend our winter in Southeast Asia, is as follows: nothing, sort of.

Making daily offerings isn't a glamorous or high-paying job, but the result is a incense-filled, flower-laden country that makes everyone's day that much brighter.

Making daily offerings isn’t a glamorous or high-paying job, but the result is an incense-filled, flower-laden country that makes everyone’s day that much brighter.

My first idea was to boycott them, to not take advantage of our respective situations. But no, I decided, that only punishes them and deprives myself of something I enjoy. These are skilled massage technicians (they are every bit as good as any CMP I’ve experienced back home at a spa charging ten times that amount) who have come to Bali to do this. Why deprive them of the living they need to earn? Okay, so don’t boycott them, but maybe I should insist on tipping them a lot more? This gets tricky. Over-tipping can create problems of jealousy in the workplace, could lead to poor service to other customers, and could ultimately lead to a sense of entitlement and lesser quality of service. Am I even sure the girls get to keep their tips? No, I’m not. And if I’m the only one doing it, then what good does it do in the long run? Other than empty my wallet that much faster. Next question. So what about the base price? Never haggle. I didn’t anyway, but I’ve seen people routinely try to haggle down the prices. Don’t do that. The prices are already low enough for anyone who can afford to fly to Bali, even if coming from nearby Australia.  Let the shops set the price and pay what they ask. And so on and so on, I debated back and forth with myself a litany of actions and undesirable/inconclusive outcomes.

I decided that, as travelers visiting less developed, inexpensive countries, perhaps the best thing we can do is to just be aware. Acknowledge the situation, take comfort in our positions of good fortune, and refrain from taking advantage of those in a less advantageous position by trying to wrest even lower prices. Don’t demean, but don’t flaunt your relative wealth either. Don’t tell the clerk how cheap everything is — save your excitement or shock for when you are out of earshot. Not only is it insulting, but the more people going around remarking how cheap everything is, the more prices get raised, and the less buying power the locals end up having. Instead, employ their services, tip them an honest, fair amount, and most of all, look to the people you do business with as equals. For after all, that’s what they are. Equals. They’re human beings just like you and me.

Update: This post was written several weeks ago, back while we were in Turkey. We are currently on a freighter, bound for Tanjung Pelepas, Malaysia and are out of contact until November 3rd. You can view our ship’s position here. I suspect this post will go live as we exit the Red Sea. We’ll be making a port call in Sri Lanka near the end of October.

9 September, 2015

Stopping for Turkish Tea in Anatolia

We pushed our bikes past hundreds of Syrian and Afghan refugees lining the waterfront in Kos, their point of entry into Europe and, hopefully, a better life. Tens of thousands of refugees crossed the waters of the Aegean from Turkey to the easternmost Greek isles of Kos and Lesbos this summer; we arrived in Greece some seven weeks earlier, just as the banks were opening — crisis averted — and we left effectively swimming against the current of a mass migration washing upon its shores. Some countries just can’t seem to catch a break.

The Turkish port city of Bodrum, from which many of the migrants shoved off in little more than inflatable dinghies, was our destination. The tiny ferry cut a northerly bearing across the strait, then turned hard to starboard, a 90-degree turn into the chop. The wind howled, spray off the bow reached us on the sun deck, and the scarlet flags emblazoned with the Turkish crescent and star failed to grow in size as the short twenty-four kilometer journey dragged on interminably. The refugees we saw living in tents and on donated mattresses lining the bicycle path in Kos, visible from the cafes and restaurants where tourists and locals alike dined on lamb chops and swilled their Mythos lagers, told news reporters that Turkey had nothing to offer them: Europe was their only hope. No matter how difficult our days ahead may get, no matter how steep the mountain’s pitch or how much we wilt under the sun’s rays, I know it will never compare to what these people endured the night of their sea journey. Nor will our stakes ever be as high. I do, however, know Turkey has something to offer us.

Bodrum harbor at night.

Bodrum harbor at night.

We are not blind to the war that drives the refugees westward, even as we seemingly cycle eastward in the direction of its epicenter, nor are we ignorant of the hostilities taking place inside Turkey and along its borders. What we are is geographically aware. Konya, where I write these words, is the most religiously conservative of Turkey’s major cities (1.2M people) and yet we walk the streets in perfect comfort. Our easternmost destination in Turkey, Goreme National Park, is still nearly 300 miles from the Syrian border. Is that too close? Who can tell? While there’s no guarantee that terrorists/ISIL aren’t getting across the Turkish border with designs on attacking Western targets (some probably are), we are confident that none are lurking in the bushes, hoping to pounce on the off chance a couple of Western-looking cyclists happen by. We are also curious about how we’d be received in this modern, thriving country that, in our opinion, gets an unfair bogeyman rap in some ignorant Western media outlets on account of its eastern neighbors.

Turkey's roads are lined with produce vendors. Not all are awake.

Turkey’s roads are lined with produce vendors. Not all are awake.

Turkey has long been one of the countries Kristin has most looked forward to visiting on our trip. It’s where Europe meets Asia, where cultures transition, blend and collide; where foodstuffs mingle and delight; and where some of history’s greatest legends were born. It’s also a place that, during the years we spent planning our trip, we saw consistently ranked by other cycling travelers as one of their favorite, can’t-miss destinations. So here we are, current events and worrisome family and friends be damned. And we’re having a great time.

We left Bodrum after a day spent acclimating to our new surroundings, tracking down a roadmap, memorizing  greetings and polite phrases, and touring the magnificent Bodrum Castle and Underwater Archaeology Museum (Bronze Age shipwreck recovered!). The route eastward out of Bodrum was very hilly, the heat had yet to abate — it hit 112 °F on one particular hill that day — and the riding was largely on the side of a highway as seemingly all east-west roads in western Turkey are at least a minor highway. In fact, after nearly 500 miles of cycling in Turkey we are now convinced that nearly every two-lane roadway in the country is being converted to a four-lane divided highway. Simultaneously.

Lots of construction in Turkey. 2-lane highways being converted to divided 4-lane highways everywhere we go.

Lots of construction in Turkey. 2-lane highways being converted to divided 4-lane highways everywhere we go.

While we’ve yet to find many of the tranquil narrow country roads we love to ride, the famous Turkish hospitality has greeted us around every corner. And it’s usually in the form of  a tulip-shaped glass of tea. We spend much of our days riding from one petrol station to the next, raiding their ubiquitous mini-marts for water, Fanta, and Gummy Bears (don’t judge!) and it was at one such stop where we met a Turkish man touring his country on a beautiful BMW dual-sport touring motorcycle. While going over routes and itineraries, the gas station attendant came over, begged his interruption, and asked if we wanted tea. Not two minutes later, the five of us were sitting on a concrete wall, silver saucers in hand, drinking our scalding-hot glasses of floral dark tea. Later that same day, atop a mountain pass, I was waved over to sit in the shade with three generations of honey sellers on the side of the road. Kristin soon joined us and, over a glass of wine, we pantomimed a bit of our stories to one another. Though we had to politely — though probably rudely — refuse the invitation to buy a large jar of honey (a worse thing to put inside my panniers I can hardly imagine), the old man ordered his grandson to give one of the stuffed animals they were selling to Kristin as a gift. And so finally, on our first day of riding in Turkey, we gained our mascot. Kristin named him Bodhie for the town of Bodrum we had left that morning.

Kristin with mascot Bodhie heading for Konya in central Turkey.

Kristin with mascot Bodhie heading for Konya in central Turkey.

Those first few days in Turkey felt like real bicycle touring again. We were wild camping under some shady pines, riding without an itinerary, taking advantage of cheap roadside motels (cheap in price, but very nice in comfort), and were even starting to see large mammals again, albeit roadkill: we passed a dead wild boar on the side of the road not ten miles from where we camped one night. How great it is to be back in a country with wildlife larger than a fox!

Wild camp spot our second night out of Bodrum.

Wild camp spot our second night out of Bodrum.

Our route took us to the tourist town of Pamukkale where, for a former geology buff like myself, the massive travertine cliffs were more than just a pretty backdrop. From there we made our way east to Konya, by way of Isparta, wending northward along the eastern shore of Lake Egirdir and then back southward along the eastern shore of Lake Besiher. The mountains of western Turkey had given way to pomegranate orchards and groves of figs and apple trees as we climbed our way onto the Anatolian Plateau and the further east we got, the less European our surroundings became; Asia Minor is as perfect a name as there ever was.

Kristin at Pamukkale.

Kristin at Pamukkale. Travertine deposits from calcium-rich thermal waters make the entire area look like an icy, winter wonderland.

But wherever we went road construction greeted us. Sometimes the new stretch of road would already be paved, but unopened, and we’d push over the gravel hump and have days-old highway all to ourselves, smooth cruising for miles! Other times we’d be forced to balance along the edge of a narrow gravel-strewn shoulder as trucks, buses, and cars all tried to squeeze past us and one another in a too-narrow space. But the cars treat us with care. In fact, if there’s any irritation we suffer at all, it’s from the constant honking and waving we receive. Seemingly half of all cars and nearly every truck slows to honk and wave at us as they pass. The attention is amusing at first, especially given how many cars seem to have personalized designer horns, but the horns can be quite loud and one does grow tired of waving to hundreds of people every day.

Nevertheless, we can’t complain. The same friendly instinct that has Turkish drivers waving and honking and yelling Merhaba! is also what leads to some of our fondest memories. Like the truck driver who pulled over, waited for us, and handed us two unopened bottles of water on a hot day. Or the family who insisted we eat some of their figs. Or, best of all, the construction crew that waved us over to join them in their tea break. We were riding along one of the new unopened sections of highway on our ride into Konya and up ahead, sitting in the shade of their truck, was a road crew enjoying a break. “ÇayÇay!” The older man, Ibrahim, yelled as he motioned for us to stop. “Merhaba,” I greeted in return, before realizing he was inviting us for tea. We squeezed the brakes, leaned our bikes against the truck and sat down for tea. Fortunately we had some figs and plums to share and one of the workers, Mustafa, knew a few words of English. We passed a half hour in each other’s company, draining the last of their double-boiler of tea.

This road crew waved us down and invited us to have tea with them. Turkish hospitality reigns supreme!

This road crew waved us down and invited us to have tea with them. Turkish hospitality reigns supreme!

At some point in every one of these encounters, the question of where we’re from comes up. Nobody ever guesses America*. Some think we’re German. Others assume we’re French. A few have even asked if we are from Spain. One said Australia. But America? No. Americans never come to Turkey, they say. In fact, sadly, we’ve yet to meet any Turkish people who have ever met an American traveler. A few years ago (and maybe even still today) it was popular for Americans to say they were Canadian when travelling overseas. Some did it for fear of terrorism, under the misguided belief that terrorists only target Americans, and others, we’ve heard, did it out of embarrassment. Some because of the country’s political/war actions and others because of the “Ugly American” stereotype that preceded them. I can’t stand stereotypes and have little patience for people who promote them. Especially when they can be so easily challenged. Kristin and I happily say we’re from the United States for two reasons: 1) because I like to think we represent the country well and the more people who get to actually know Americans (and us likewise them) the better off the world we’ll be, and 2) why not?

Three generations of honey sellers on the side of the road invited us into the shade for some wine and a chat.

Three generations of honey sellers on the side of the road invited us into the shade for some wine and a chat.

While I do chafe at being asked where I’m from when it’s the first words out of someone’s mouth, before we’ve established any dialogue, it’s not because I don’t want to say I’m American. It’s simply because I find it rude. “Where you from? Where you from?” is a phrase that grows annoying. It’s asked out of curiosity, and sometimes to figure out what language should be spoken, but it’s also code for We know you’re not from around here. And nobody likes being reminded that they don’t fit in. In tourist areas, the question gets shouted to us from across the street by merchants hoping to bait us into stopping, and hopefully buying. Sometimes I ignore it, other times I reply “Earth.” Once or twice, I just agreed to their first guess to end the discussion. Never mind that I don’t sound French. But I happily welcome the question after a relationship has been established. Americans like to ask people what they do for a living, others ask where people are from. Same thing; appropriate when a relationship has been established, but a pretty lazy icebreaker.

I was waiting for Kristin atop the hilll in Pamukkale and these men came over to chat. Three of them were Iraqi and were so happy to meet an American -- "Go-Bama" they yelled -- and insisted on a photo with every camera.

Doug was waiting for Kristin atop the hill in Pamukkale and these men came over to chat. Three of them were Iraqi and were so happy to meet an American — “Go Obama!”they yelled — and insisted on a photo with every one of their cameras.

That being said, I nearly laughed out loud at the timing of one man’s inquiry today. I was at a barber in Konya, across the street from a very large, beautiful mosque. Outside the shop I could see women walking past completely covered in black, from head to toe with scarf, robes, and veil , the muezzin had just begun the call to prayer, and the barber had a long straight-edge razor at my neck, about to shave. There may as well have been a sign above my head flashing the words “Vulnerable Infidel” with an arrow pointing at me. The other barber, tapping distractedly at his iPhone, looks up and says the words: “Where you from?”

He repeats my answer in surprise and goes back to his phone. There’s a brief pause. I suppress my urge to chuckle being that there is still a large razor blade at my neck and then the man looks back and, like every other person to whom we’ve told where we’re from, he replies. “America? Very good. Very good. Enjoy Turkey. Welcome!”

Kebap platter for two.

Kebap platter for two.

*With respect to my answering America, allow me to explain. I have always been a bit uneasy when people from the United States use the one-word term America when asked to name their country of origin, as that word, America, actually refers to some 35 different nations that comprise “the Americas.” Yes, this is geographic semantics, and I fully acknowledge that the USA is the only one of those 35 nations with the word America in its title, but bear with me. Are our Canadian friends not also from America? What about those in Brazil or Mexico? Yes, technically, they are also American. So, for that reason, I often replied that I was from the United States. As most people do. You would be shocked — SHOCKED — by the amount of times this response was met with a blank stare. Whether in Spain, Japan, Italy, Greece, Indonesia, Morocco or Turkey, we have met countless numbers of people who, upon hearing United States, act as if we just said we’ve come from the planet Tralfamadore. It was only upon saying America that they knew what we were talking about. And this was almost always met with an excited, “America! Go Obama!”

17 August, 2015

Photos: Traditional Cretan Wedding

In no hurry to complete our lap around Crete too quickly, I turned to AirBNB in search of some cheap digs to rest our tired legs and found a great place in the small village of Kritsa nestled in the mountains of central Crete, not far from our general direction of travel. A small one-bedroom apartment with kitchen for $34 per night was too good to pass up so we turned inland, and upward, for three nights of relaxation. Little did I know that this sudden detour would not only lead us to one of the most beautiful stretches of road we’ve yet ridden, but that we’d arrive on the day of a traditional village wedding.

The village has apparently been wanting to stage a traditional Cretan wedding for some years as a means of enriching tradition amongst the youth (who often leave these tiny villages at first chance) and to promote the village economy, but it wasn’t until this year that a couple agreed to marry in this style. Lucky for us, we just so happened to be there to catch it.

Kritsa assigned unused houses to be the traditional groom’s house, bride’s house, and marriage house and decorated these house in period furnishings prior to the wedding. Meanwhile the local communities assembled all of the traditional clothing needed to take the village back in time.

The groom's company sing for him outside his house in Kritsa.

The groom’s company sing for him outside his house in Kritsa. With the dowry taken to the bridal home, the party returned to the groom’s house for song and dance. The groom’s house was just steps from the house we’re staying in.

This little boy was caught sneaking candy at the groom's house in Kritsa.

This little boy was caught sneaking candy at the groom’s house in Kritsa.

The procession through Kritsa heads for the bride's family house so the bride and groom can continue to the church together.

The procession through Kritsa heads for the bride’s family house so the bride and groom can continue to the church together.

The groom's men heading for the bride's house.

The groom’s men heading for the bride’s house.

Two local girls attending the wedding in Kritsa.

Two local girls attending the wedding in Kritsa.

The party moves to the church courtyard for the nuptial ceremony.

The party moves to the church courtyard for the nuptial ceremony.

The bride and groom knotted in matrimony.

The bride and groom knotted in matrimony.

Flower girl in Kritsa.

Flower girl in Kritsa.

Local family in traditional dress for the wedding in Kritsa.

Local family in traditional dress for the wedding in Kritsa.

The four hours of processions, song, dance, and the actual wedding ceremony were a wonderful sight to witness and we’re so fortunate to finally be in the right place for a village wedding ceremony. Numerous houses and shops set up tables along the walk with free olives, bread, almonds, and raki, a locally-produced brandy made from the mashed grapes left over from wine making that runs about 60% ABV. The local villagers really seemed happy to be reliving their traditions, if only for a day, and graciously posed for photos when not busy singing and dancing.

Click any of the photos to head over to the Flickr album for even more photos from Greece, Crete, and of the wedding in Kritsa.

Best of luck to the new couple!

9 August, 2015

Greece: A Perfect Time to Visit

We were sitting in Ancient Olympia, enjoying the cooling sensation of the misters attached to a street-spanning maple tree, hoping to stop sweating before our daily salads and souvlaki arrived to our sidewalk table. My shirt was soaked. Mistake number one was visiting the ruins during the middle of the day. Mistake number two — mine alone — was deciding to sprint the length of the ancient track. The 192 meter pebble-strewn dirt track dates back to the 5th century B.C. and begged to be ran. Clothed, shoed (barely), and unencumbered by neither shield nor sword nor cuirass, I managed to run the distance in 28 seconds flat. Not bad for a guy about to turn 40 who hasn’t sprinted in a decade; absolutely pedestrian for the 20-year old miler I once was. But yes, I timed myself. I allowed myself this display of mid-life foolishness in part because it was Ancient Olympia and it had to be done, but mostly because there was nobody there to see me embarrass myself.

Was just posing for a photo on the 5th century B.C. stadium track but did end up "sprinting" the 192 meters for the fun of it.

Was just posing for a photo on the 5th century B.C. stadium track but did end up “sprinting” the 192 meters for the fun of it.

We followed the Greek banking crisis very closely during our final weeks in Italy, hoping a deal would be reached before too long, that the banks would reopen, and that life for the common Greek citizen would return to some semblance of normal. Now, writing from Athens, I can report that the shelves are stocked, the banks are open, and the lines for the cash machines are back to normal, that is to say virtually nonexistent. The only thing missing are the tourists.

I was talking with a good friend of mine several years ago about Greece, during the last round of bailout worries. His wife wanted to visit Greece, but he was afraid of a possible run on the banks ruining their travel plans. Buoyed by the alcohol we were enjoying and the happiness I always feel whenever I see my old friends from New Jersey, I replied with a flippant, callow response: something about holding up his MasterCard and ordering another round of drinks.

Now, having been in the country for three weeks and talking with locals and visitors alike, I realize we both missed the mark with our assessments of how the situation might affect visitors. For starters, Greece is primarily a cash economy. You’re not going to get very far trying to rely on a credit card for the bulk of your every day transactions (though I have yet to be refused when trying to pay with a credit card in nicer stores and restaurants in larger towns). It was the same throughout Italy and in Morocco. We knew this before we arrived and brought a month’s worth of Euros from Italy with us into the country, stashed between multiple hiding spots in our panniers — shhh, it’s a secret! That said, like a visitor coming from overseas, we also prepay online for any planned hotel stays, if only to conserve our cash reserves. Tonight is our fourth night at a cheap hotel in Athens; I booked the stay two weeks ago online. As for the chaos a run on the banks may have induced, I suspect it likely would not have extended far beyond the major squares and government centers in Athens and a few larger cities. Part of the reason that 30 billion Euros have been withdrawn from the Greek banking system over the past few years, we’ve been told, is that many people throughout the country have already withdrawn their savings and hide the money at home, particularly those in the islands and the smaller villages in the countryside (much also fled westward in the pockets of emigrants). So, in a way, the run has already taken place. But, like my efforts on the track in Ancient Olympia, it was too slow to notice.

Ancient Messene stadium and mausoleum in the distance. No need to go running here with 20 more miles to go!

Ancient Messene stadium and mausoleum in the distance. No need to go running here with 20 more miles to go!

We spent two nights in Ancient Olympia, camping a few blocks from downtown, and making friends with two separate Dutch travelers we met, Mark and Joost, the latter so generously shared the homemade schnapps he picked up from a roadside vendor somewhere in Montenegro or Albania. Our route carried us into the mountains of the central Peloponnese where the heat didn’t abate and the mountains steepened. Planning one week at a time, and looking for a place to celebrate our anniversary, I routed us south past Ancient Messene to the coastal city of Kalamata. Yes, like the olives. Our ride into Kalamata was turning into another one of the suffer-fests each of our recent blog posts have chronicled. I wasn’t sure the climb to the hilltop town of Ancient Messene was going to be worth the effort. This time I let Kristin make the call: she felt we’d regret passing it up if we straight-lined for Kalamata. And so we added another grueling, sun-baked climb to our collection, only to then wander amongst additional 4th century B.C. ruins. And it was worth it. Sort of. Maybe if we were in a car.

What I didn’t realize when planning our route into Kalamata was that the only way out of Kalamata was up and over a very steep mountain range. We wanted to visit the Byzantine city of Mystras, just a short distance outside of Sparta, but to get there was going to be brutally difficult. I spent an entire afternoon in Kalamata trying to plot a less mountainous route, but none proved tempting.

The mountainous highway 82 leading from Kalamata to Mystras.

The mountainous highway 82 leading from Kalamata to Mystras.

Though Kalamata itself has very little to attract the foreign visitor aside from the beach and cheap restaurants, we are so thrilled we went. For if we hadn’t, we’d never have ended up on the stunning Highway 82 that leads up and over the mountain to Mystras and Sparta. While much of the Peloponnese contains dry, barren mountain sides with periodic olive groves, the descent into Mystras on Highway 82 dives into one of the narrowest gorges we’ve encountered. The road corkscrews and hairpins downward so tightly, the GPS track on my Garmin resembled a bowl of spaghetti. I’d set up by the side of the road to photograph Kristin and see her enter the frame, on the next switchback, directly beneath me. I’d stand on a bend and see the same road twist in and out of the view three and sometimes four times from one position. Further down the mountain the road disappeared completely into a narrow rock tunnel, barely a lane wide and with a sharp turn. More cave than a tunnel.

Further down on the descent into the gorge near Mystras.

Further down on the descent into the gorge leading to Mystras.

We climbed nearly 5,000 feet in a short 37 miles that day, a ride that should have shredded our knees and tore our willpower to pieces, but it didn’t. The days off in Kalamata, after all of those grueling miles since leaving Rome, left us rested and ready to tackle anything. Finally, after a month of being back on the bikes, we were back in the shape we were in last December. Alas, no more tales of woe!

We stopped at a spring halfway up the climb to refill our water bottles and, while eating the leftover dinner we took with us from Kalamata, were approached by a pair of Dutch travelers. Our bicycles continue to draw attention everywhere we go and nobody ever hesitates to strike up a conversation. And nothing surprises them more — not our route, distance pedaled, or our time away from home — than the fact that we are Americans. For such a populated country as the United Sates is, spotting an American away from home continues to be a rarity for most other travelers. The Dutch, on the other hand, are everywhere. And we love encountering them.

Several hours later, grinning from the euphoria of that unforgettable descent into Mystras, we were camped alongside four bicycle tourists — a family with two teenage daughters who had been touring every summer since the girls were out of diapers. Dutch, naturally. We walked into the village square to get groceries a little while later and, while waiting for the store to reopen at 6 pm, we heard a call. The man we met at the mountain spring came running over, gave us great big hugs, and implored us to join he and his wife for a drink. A round of beers turned into a round of Tsipouro then, while dodging the first rainstorm we had seen in over a month, a round of Ouzo. Ans and Harry, well into their 70s and very well-traveled, then generously invited us to join them for dinner where we were drinking. Their treat, our great fortune. We got back to the campground sometime after 11 pm; vowing to never go anywhere without our camera again.

We unfortunately didn’t run into Ans and Harry while touring the Byzantine temples and monasteries of Mystras the next day. Then again, aside from the touring cyclist family and a small French tour group, there weren’t many people there at all. Everywhere we go, we hear the same lament: the tourists are staying away because of the banking crisis. The crisis dominated the news early in the summer when most travelers were making their plans. Italy is reaping the benefits, particularly from the German tourists who are largely boycotting Greece altogether. It’s a tough situation, the effects mostly being felt by those with no control. So it goes, as my favorite author would say.

Gorgeous riding along the coast near Alkiona, northeast of Corinth.

Gorgeous riding along the coast near Alkioni, northeast of Corinth, en route to Athens.

From Mystras we continued northward to Mycenae, the 15th century B.C. archaeological site with mythical ties to Perseus, Cyclops, and King Agamemnon. It is here where Homer supposedly received much of his inspiration for writing The Iliad. And, in turn, where I’ve been inspired to try and read it without the forced supervision of a high school English teacher. My feat too shall become legend, if successful.

Looking south to the Acropolis from the Agora.

Looking south to the Acropolis from the Agora in Athens.

It wasn’t until we reached the Acropolis in Athens where, alas, the tourists have emerged in larger quantities. But even then, we bought our combo tickets at the nearby Temple of Olympian Zeus and didn’t have to wait in a queue to get in. We spent our first full day in Athens with a group of three teachers from New York; the first Americans we’ve encountered in nearly 6 weeks of being back in Europe. The guide for the free tour that brought us all to Syntagma Square was a no-show so, armed with Jeff’s historical knowledge and my map-reading ability, we set off on our own and had a wonderful day together. From Hadrian’s Arch to the Theater of Dionysus to the Parthenon to the Agora, and ultimately to the miraculously preserved Temple of Hephaestus, we walked miles through the text books of our youth. So much of our Western way of life can be traced back to these very buildings we walked amongst! Math! Theater! Democracy! Kristin and I couldn’t help but sit in the Theater of Dionysus — a structure over 2500 years old! — and feel the influence this theater’s design has had on every stage to follow, including our own beloved, modest, Taproot Theater in Seattle. The more we saw, the more amazing our being there in person came to feel.

The Temple of Hephaestus and our new friends in the Agora.

The Temple of Hephaestus and our new friends Jeff, David, and Jessica.

Away from the Acropolis and the other major historical attractions, Athens suffers. A block in any direction away from a major site or upscale hotel lands you on pockmarked, graffiti-covered, alleys. The graffiti covers every surface, litter collects in numerous gutters, bus stops, and abandoned storefronts.  And there are many of these abandoned storefronts in the immigrant neighborhood where our hotel is located. The sidewalks are in shambles. The facades of numerous buildings cracked and crumbling.  It’s not an unsafe city; we remain comfortable even while walking across town at midnight. We’ve passed junkies shoving one another, a multitude of homeless sleeping in the shadows, and squatters clambering through a kicked-out window in abandoned apartment buildings. Outside our hotel, an elderly man smelling of urine and sweat shouts at the moon. But we are ignored, free to ponder the ubiquitous anarchy symbols while forever minding our step lest we step in a puddle that isn’t rainwater. Our presence in this neighborhood is, to use the Greek word, an anachronism but we move about as if largely unseen.

Nevertheless, the conditions of the city does weigh on one’s soul. Who can live amongst such vandalized beauty and not feel the effects? We see it in the hardened, dark eyes of the servers and bartenders; in the looks of the mini-mart clerks; and on the faces of the souvlaki slingers. It drains the soul. This is a city of monumental historic significance, a region of immeasurable natural beauty, but a country with ever-mounting financial and immigration hurdles before it.

Some of the more attractve graffiti in Athens.

Some of the more attractve graffiti in Athens.

August is the busiest time of the year to visit Greece but we find ourselves often seated alone in restaurants, tented amongst an array of empty campsites, and visiting world-renown archaeological attractions with just a smattering of other people. We hear this will change on the Aegean islands, where we head next, but that doesn’t help those here in Athens and across the Peloponnese or on Kefalonia where the hardworking, friendly people reliant on tourism would really like you to come and visit. And, unlike in Italy, you don’t even have to bring your own toilet paper.

Special Thanks: To Ron Helm and Pacific Biomarkers, Inc. for their continued support of our journey and to Ans and Harry for the wonderful meal and drinks in Mystras. We hope the rest of your travels were enjoyable.

18 June, 2015

Top 10 Questions We Get Asked

We’re oh-so-close to getting back on our bikes after six months away from our beloved Salsa Fargos and we can’t wait. We spent the last two weeks in Florida at Kristin’s mom’s beach house, joining family in spreading her father’s ashes in the Gulf of Mexico, and are headed back to New Jersey to collect our Ortlieb duffel bags, deposit some of the gear we took to Japan and Indonesia, and bid farewell to family one more time. We’ll be back in Italy, unboxing our stowed bikes in less than a week!

While we were making our 31-hour journey from Singapore to Florida earlier this month we thought it would be fun to assemble a “top 10” post from our first 15 months of being on the road. Rather than answer the most rudimentary questions (What’s your favorite meal?, What’s your favorite country?, How did you get across the Atlantic?, etc.,) we tried to remember the questions that scratched a little deeper. And in doing so, we were forced to remember — and acknowledge — that this has been one absolutely amazing trip so far.

We hope you enjoy this post and, if we failed to answer any questions your inquiring mind wants to know, go ahead and ask it in the comments section and we’ll be sure to reply as soon as possible!

1: What was your favorite day on the bike?

Doug: For me, it had to be our second big mountain day in Spain. I was really hesitant to leave Pamplona and my 8-year old GPS gave up the ghost the morning we were leaving so I had to wing it with just a compass and small-scale map. The next day, after camping in Logrono, we headed deep into the Sierra de la Demanda for some tremendous alpine scenery. We struggled to find a place to wild camp as we kept getting higher and higher into the mountains. The scenery was tremendous, the road very narrow and windy, sheep and cattle wore eerily clanging bells, and it was getting dark. And we just kept climbing and climbing along this narrow mountain creek until, finally, we found a wonderful primitive campground near a trailhead on the side of the road.  It was one of the darkest nights I had ever experienced and it got cold. But it was the perfect end to a tremendous day of early autumn cycling in the Pyrenees and capped our third consecutive day of 4,000 feet of climbing.

Kristin: For me, it was the day we finally reached the familiar scent of the Atlantic Ocean. We rolled out of Brooks, Maine that morning headed for Acadia National Park. We always knew we would eventually reach the Atlantic Ocean, but after enjoying the routine of biking, eating, and sleeping day after day, we were shocked when we realized that we actually did it. We bicycled across the USA at its widest point. It was as we crossed the beautiful bridge that connected the small island of Verona with mainland Maine that I smelled that salty, sea air. I stared at the back of Doug’s head, willing him to turn around. I didn’t want to ruin the moment by calling to him. Within a few minutes, he turned his head and through my tears, I saw his eyes glistening too. We stopped on the bridge, wrapped our arms around each other’s sweaty bodies and just paused to think about what we had just accomplished.

At the top of Puerto de Montenegro pass.

At the top of Puerto de Montenegro pass in the Sierra de la Demanda.

2: What was your favorite day off the bike?

Kristin: I will never forget my 39th birthday in Naples, Italy! Doug plans most days, but today was going to be special. The celebration started with dinner the night before at a small restaurant with live music. It started to lightly snow in Naples and the waiters all ran outside to see the flakes — it never snows in Naples! The next morning, we hopped a train to Pompeii where a dusting of snow made this wonder even greater. It was much larger and better preserved than I imagined. There were still tile mosaics in the bathhouses and terra cotta warming pots in the restaurants. After returning to Naples and a few hours of rest, we ventured out to the town square for a Time Square-like celebration to ring in the New Year. Yes, my birthday falls on December 31st! At midnight, after the countdown, many people in the crowd began lighting fireworks (most would have been illegal in the USA) and sparklers as long as my arm and the diameter of my index finger. It sounded like what I imagine a war zone to sound like. Later we returned to our room, walking down the middle of the street so as to avoid items being thrown out the windows. In Naples, people take “out with the old and in with the new,” quite literally as champagne bottles, small appliances, and even some furniture were thrown out in favor of a new start. This was a celebration unlike anything I’d experienced before and it went from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m. the next morning. People in Naples know how to ring in the New Year.

Doug: Kristin planned a tremendous day for my 39th birthday in Paris. We walked up to Sacre Couer first thing in the morning and then split up for a few hours. I had to get some new bike chains and a new tire and went and walked through Paris by myself on a bit of a cafe/pub-crawl. That night, Kristin took me to the incredibly beautiful Sainte-Chapelle to see a string ensemble perform Pachelbel’s Canon, Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor, and Vivaldi’s entire Four Seasons led by one of the France’s top violinists. It was absolutely amazing. We then had a fantastic dinner at an upscale cafe while watching some guys play a fun yard game out in the square. After dinner these two younger Parisians, Cedric and Jeffrey, taught us how to play the Swedish game Molkke. I took to it right away and won my share of games. We played until nearly midnight when one of the wealthy neighbors came out to complain about our noise.

Pompeii and the volcano that put it in the history books.

Pompeii and the volcano that put it in the history books.

3: What was the biggest dose of culture shock?

Doug: We spent a month in Morocco, our first Muslim country, and then, on December 9th, boarded a ferry bound for Livorno, Italy. We were tired, emotionally spent, and not really thinking too clearly about the seasons. When we finally arrived in Italy, very late on December 11th, we pedaled four miles through darkened streets to our hotel. The next morning, we awoke to realize our hotel was right in the middle of a bustling Christmas market. We had completely forgotten about Christmas. The transition from southern Spain to Morocco was so gentle thanks to the long-forgotten Moors (“Moops” for our fellow Seinfeld fans) but going straight from a month in Morocco, capped with ten days in the Sahara, to a Christmas market in Italy… it was almost too much to comprehend.

Kristin: On April 27th, after six weeks in Japan, we boarded a plane to leave the polite, modern world of Tokyo. We loved the city. There are so many people in one place and yet it never felt crowded or claustrophobic. Everyone was courteous and respectful of everyone else’s space. But we were excited to be finally headed to Bali and after ten hours, we were thrust into another world. The streets of Kuta, our first stop, were crowded with honking cars and motorbikes and the sidewalks were filled with people bumping past each other. Most every store front was a cheap souvenir store, tour or taxi service, or massage parlor with workers outside constantly calling to us. It was also very dirty in spots. It was too much in-your-face chaos too soon. After a good night sleep, we accepted Kuta for what it was and enjoyed the party, but the initial shock nearly had us back on the plane for Tokyo.

4: List your Top 3 favorite food memories!

Kristin: Anyone who knows me knows that every tooth in my mouth is a sweet tooth and I never met anything sugary that I didn’t like. So, when we arrived in Morocco and I had my first sip of the sugary sweet mint tea, I was in love. It tasted like mint flavored sweet tea from the southern United States, but served hot. Next on my list are the baguettes in France, which seems obvious, but when I imagined a French woman walking elegantly down the street, I never pictured her gnawing on a baguette for lunch and yet that was what I saw. Naturally, I paid my euro for a whole baguette and joined in. And last but not least, I loved the plethora of fresh fruit (papaya, passion fruit, dragon fruit, guava, mangosteen, to name a few) in Bali. Much of it I had never seen nor was really sure how to eat, but the locals were always willing to help us out or sometimes we just figured it out. Eating is a huge part of the joy of this trip.

Doug: Forgive me for speaking in general terms, but after so many great snacks and tremendous meals, I struggle to be very specific. For me, when I think about food, the first thing that comes to mind is the unbelievable French bakeries (boulangeries/patisseries). The baguettes and pastries being produced in France are, for my money, the highest quality, most affordable food on the planet. Next up, I’d have to say our first kaiseki meal in a Japanese ryokan. We stayed in a few ryokans while in Japan, but nothing compared to that first 11-course meal at Aura Tachibana. And, lastly, for my third pick, I’ll just say Tuscany. All the food in Tuscany. All of it. Especially the meal we ate on a rainy, frigid, day in the mountains served up by a former Miss Italia.

Our appetizer contained shrimp pudding, butterfish, green-tea tofu, chicken jelly, and a turkey pastrami.

The appetizer course of a meal at Aura Tachibana in Hakone, Japan.

5: What cultural observation surprised you the most?

Doug: After spending a month in France, a month in Spain, and a month in Morocco, three countries with very established “cafe cultures” for lack of a better word (Spain less so than France and Morocco), I have to say I was quite surprised by the lack of a cafe culture in Italy. Italians belly up to the espresso bar, order, throw back their shot in one gulp, and are out the door as fast as can be. I noticed very little loitering in Italian cafes, very few people reading the paper or watching the day unfold. Which shocked me given how unhurried most Italians seemed to be. That said, the cafes in Italy stock an impressive array of alcohol and appear to do most of their business in the evenings when people stop for a drink or three after work. Still, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many chairs and tables in Italian cafes.

Kristin: Japan is small and space is limited, so I was shocked to see the size of the stores and number of choices in every category. Just one store, Yodobashi Camera in Osaka, had eight massive floors of electronics. I couldn’t believe how many high quality choices there were for every category of electronics from refrigerators, to vacuums, washers and dryers, to printer paper, to speaker wire, everything electronic. Just as an example, there were over one hundred different vacuums to choose from and the printer paper section spanned about 2000 square feet. Every item had a variety like this. If you wanted a rice cooker, you had dozens of models to choose from. The section devoted to camera tripods was larger than most camera stores we have in the USA. I’ll be very jealous when I start looking to furnish a home and faced with America’s limited choices.

6: What was your favorite region/country to travel by bicycle?

Kristin: Even though the New England region of the USA provided some of the hilliest and longest days, the friendliness of the people more than made up for it. We cycled up Terrible Pass in Vermont with a pair of roadies who chatted with us until our paths diverged and nearly six months later invited us to see them when they heard that we were back in New Jersey for a few weeks. Also in Vermont, we had a motel owner toss the keys to his new car to Doug to drive the two of them to pick up our pizza and beer. The pizza place didn’t deliver, nor did any other restaurant in town, and the motel owner had had two beers, but didn’t want us to go hungry. In Maine, we were adopted for the night by a dozen senior citizen hot rod owners staying at the Fryberg Fairground. We cycled up to ask them if they knew where we might camp for the night and before we knew it they insisted that we join them for dinner, let us put up our tent behind their RVs, and fed us until we cried mercy. The following morning, several of them brought us baggies of brownies, muffins, and bread to have for breakfast and take with us for snacks during the day. We have met friendly people everywhere, but these were just a few standout memories that we wouldn’t have had if we were driving.

Doug: I want to say Spain, but I can’t. I have to go with my backyard and say the northwestern United States. Particularly, that stretch between Puget Sound and Glacier National Park. The scenery is phenomenal, the environments varied, and there are so many affordable camping options that bike touring is just easier there. We camped in State Parks, County Parks, National Parks, and plenty of National Forests, the latter of which has a tremendous system of primitive campgrounds. Also, food is abundant and inexpensive (gas station Teriyaki for the win!), there are a number of friendly WarmShowers hosts. Also, the roads aren’t bad at all and there are plenty of rail-trails to be ridden. If you’re looking for good roads, abundant non-commercial camping, and great scenery, the Pacific Northwest is tough to beat!

Moonpies and a campfire on the shores of Lake Chelan in central Washington state.

Moonpies and a campfire on the shores of Lake Chelan in central Washington state, our fourth night out.

7: What place are you most looking forward to returning to?

We’ll tag team this answer since we have the same top two responses and they’re essentially 1a and 1b. First, we have to say Bali. Not for bicycle touring, but for living. And we’re actually going to be doing just that next year, as we already made arrangements to rent a great little house outside of Ubud for four months in 2016, just a short walk through the rice fields to our favorite haunts from last month. So that, by default, has to be mentioned first. The other place that we really hope to return to is Pamplona, Spain. Pamplona had a tremendous blend of parks, public squares, cafes and restaurants, and nearby recreation that it really suited us. It’s also a very clean, well-organized city, with a lot of culture and history. And the best part, in our opinion, is that it’s relatively free of tourists outside those two weeks in the summer when the world comes to run with the bulls. Kristin has been working on improving her Spanish language skills with Duolingo and looks forward to putting it to use in the future.

I can get used to this.

Nightlife in Pamplona.

8: What place do you hope to never return to again?

Kristin: North Dakota. Whether riding or camping, the wind is more than I could handle at times. Some days we had a tailwind and it was wonderful, but most days it was either a strong crosswind or strong headwind. We had two days that we had to cut short after a few hours of cycling averaging only 5 to 7 miles per hour and realizing we wouldn’t make it to our planned destination. In camp, the wind continued to annoy by whisking away our plates, napkins, plastic garbage bags, and anything else that wasn’t weighted down. There were plenty of nice views and scenery, and we met some friendly, generous people too, but the incessant wind was miserable. If I ever return, it won’t be on a bicycle!

Doug: I’ve complained about Morocco enough over the past six months, that it’s starting to feel like I’m piling on, but I have to say the city of Fes. It’s just not for me. There are a lot of neat things about Fes, but for every wonderful moment we had, we had two or three blood-boiling moments of frustration. I don’t care for places where the only way to survive is to assume most people are scam-artists. It’s particularly disappointing as I always counted Morocco as one of the three countries I was most excited to visit. It’s been funny to talk to other long-term travelers these past few months about Morocco. As soon as the topic comes up, everybody we meet who has been there just puts their hands up to stop me right there. “Don’t get us started about Morocco. Let’s talk about something else,” they say. I’m happy to know it’s not me (though, of course, those who experience Morocco on package tours often regale us with a very different opinion).

The hills of the plains aren't big, but they're never-ending. As are the headwinds.

The hills of North Dakota’s central plains aren’t big, but they’re never-ending. As are the headwinds.

9: What were your favorite obvious tourist attractions?

There are plenty of so-called must-see attractions that we rolled right on past, but we did stop for some of them. We even went way, way out of our way for a couple too. A brief list of our favorites in no particular order: Shakespeare’s Birthplace, Michelangelo’s David, Bodleian Library at Oxford, Pompeii in the snow, the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican, live Flamenco performance in Seville, the Eiffel Tower, Mont Saint-Michel, and the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial.

So much energy in flamenco, especially from such a close distance.

So much energy in flamenco, especially from such a close distance.

10: What was your most embarrassing moment?

This was a joint-humiliation affair so this will have to cover both of us. We were still in Washington state, staying with a WarmShowers host in eastern WA and he so graciously emailed to say that he would be home after we arrived and we should just let ourselves in. We were really shy about doing this so we instead went to a bar for an hour and then came back. He still wasn’t home so we finally got up the courage to let ourselves in. He had cats. Two of them, one orange and one black. We did our best to keep them away from the door, but we had a lot of panniers to bring in and, well, in the chaos of us going back and forth from the basement guestroom to our bikes outside, the cats disappeared.

Panic immediately set in. We started running throughout the house calling out for “black cat” and “orange cat” hoping that they would respond to these ridiculous calls. The cats were nowhere. And then we noticed the door was ajar. Oh no. We ran to the door and looked out the window and didn’t see them. Another hurried search of the house turned up nothing. What are we going to do? “We need to just go,” I said to Kristin. “We need to just pretend we were never here and hope someone returns the cats. Lets get back on our bikes and find a motel before he comes home.” She didn’t like this idea. I didn’t like it either, but what choice did we have? I was already envisioning these poor cats getting eaten by a coyote or run over by a car.

We stood in shock in the kitchen, feeling absolutely awful. And then we heard the dog barking outside. He was in a fenced-in kennel and barking like crazy. We went outside to see what the problem was and that’s when we saw the cats. They were sitting on their hind legs right outside the door. Miracles exist! We each grabbed a cat and quickly carried them inside, tremendously relieved that they actually allowed us to pick them up.

Two hours later, showered, beer in hand, and talking with our host, the cats wandered into the kitchen. Our host bent down to pet them, then stood, and opened the door to let them go outside. “I should have asked you to let them out when you got here since I had to work late,” he said.

Yes, the cats we were so panicked over; the cats we imagined being killed by our negligence, turned out to be outdoor cats. Outdoor cats we should have just let out.

22 May, 2015

Warrior Poses and Dragon Tongues

My right leg is wrapped around my left, thigh over thigh, foot tucked behind my calf. Sometimes. My quadriceps quivers as I entwine my arms, the palms flat against one another in front of my forehead. My left leg begins to wobble as I sit back onto an invisible chair as my elbows reach up and I bend forward, an attempt at the advanced posture for this pose I’m told is called Garudasana. Google would later translate it for me: Eagle Pose. I bend at the waist but keep my eyes up and all I see is a lone coconut palm, my drishti, the very same tree I affix my gaze to every morning. It’s the tallest tree on the distant ridge, across the valley of rice fields and jungle, to the right of an orange-roofed villa. I can spot this tree from whatever mat I claim in the window-walled yoga studio at Intuitive Flow and I must for it is the source of my balance, shaky as it may be. For ninety minutes every morning, day after day, regardless the pose, I see no further than this coconut palm across the valley in the achingly beautiful Penestanan area of Ubud, Bali. Nor do I want to.

Bend at the waist, hands touching the floor. Inhale, right leg back.
Exhale, heel down and turn out the toes. Rise into Warrior One.
Hips squared, arms raised, focus on your Ujayii breathing.

One of the local ladies we see most mornings on our walk to yoga.

One of the local ladies we see most mornings on our walk to yoga. She’s carrying a large basket of offerings to the nearby temple. Families in Bali each make 25 small offerings a day, but this was a festival day so she had a much larger offering prepared.

Our first night in Ubud was something else. We went to the cafe nearest our house, Alchemy, a holistic, cold-pressed, vegan, organic oasis for the spirit-seeking, yoga-crazed, Eat, Pray, Love pilgrims who flock, unbeknownst to us at the time, to this part of Bali. The place was a caricature of itself; I had no idea cafes like this existed outside of South Park and Futurama punchlines. All around us, long-haired, barefooted, Sanskrit-tattooed men and woman in breezy clothing, most younger than us, sat cross-legged on sofas, their dirty feet unabashedly brushing the numerous pillows. Snippets of conversation involving phrases like heart space and total soul floated across the room. “Everyone,” I remember commenting to Kristin, “is so affected. This can’t possibly be authentic.” We sat and sipped our all-natural smoothies through our fresh-cut papaya straws and enjoyed a most unforgettable hour of people-watching.

Our table at Yellow Flower Cafe, where we can be found almost every day.

Our table at Yellow Flower Cafe, where we can be found almost every day.

After yoga each day Kristin and I walk along a narrow concrete path delicately perched on the edge of a terrace between jungle, rice fields, villas, and a narrow water channel, to the nearby Yellow Flower Cafe where we settle down to read over too many cups of coffee and a whole coconut. We sit atop thin cushions on a raised floor in the corner, leaning our sweaty backs against a curved wall, the same spot every day. Sometimes for hours. The coffee is local, cheap, and strong and the food organic and delicious; the setting is priceless. We are slowly becoming part of the scenery and often fall into conversation with whoever claims the other low table in this nest-like portion of the cafe. Perhaps a woman or two from our yoga class, or one of the instructors, or a retired Australian couple, or European newlyweds. It doesn’t matter. Ubud is the anti-Seattle. Here a warm smile inevitably leads to a lengthy conversation, an exchange of email addresses, and a hug. The staff knows us now too, knows that we’ll be back tomorrow, and knows we want a table for two, sometimes three, no-you-better-make-that-four for the Sunday night Indonesian buffet. They don’t fret for a moment when we realize that we’ve run out of cash and have to return the next day with the rest of the money we owe. It’s happened twice.

Back foot meets the right and Downward Dog.
Turn in your elbows, hips to the sky, exhale.
Inhale and slide forward into plank. Exhale and hold it.

One day last week we didn’t go to yoga and the cafe but instead rented a motorbike and took off across the island, up into the mountains. It was a 75-mile day trip, pushing our 110cc Honda Scoopy to its limit as it gamely carried us up steeply switchbacking 20% inclines to the rim of an ancient, weathered volcano. Bali is beautiful, from tip to tip, just as we suspected. Though our trip to a lakeside temple, waterfall, and rice fields yielded a very memorable day we opted to scale back our plans for other similar forays on account of our newly-formed, instantly-treasured routine back in Ubud.

Legong dancers take the stage at Ubud Palace.

Legong dancers take the stage at Ubud Palace.

Still, as the days went on, my drishti began to change. Though my physical eyes remained affixed to that same stalwart ridgetop tree, the towering nail that refused to let the wind hammer it down, my inner sight saw far beyond it. I began seeing all the way to Rome… and our bicycles. And then, a few poses later, my gaze fell beyond the Greek Isles and Turkey and all the way around the world to southeast Asia. Further always, forever looking around the bend in the road or to the next page of the calendar. It is my blessing and my curse. It is why we are here in Bali. And why we’ll leave next week. Dammit.

Focus your awareness on your heart as you breathe deeply.
Feel the air passing through your heart from your chest to your back. Hold it.
Follow the air as it moves from your back, through your heart, and out your chest.

With the house locked tight, cheap supermarket bags stuffed with a change of clothes, sunscreen, and our ever-present Kindles slung over our shoulders, we set off at 5 a.m. to catch a ride back to Denpasar for an early morning flight to Labuan Bajo on the island of Flores. Of all the things I ever wanted to do in this corner of the world, visiting Komodo National Park sat atop the list. And we were going to do just that. Kristin had booked us for a three-day boat trip from Flores to Rinca and Komodo Islands. We saw eleven Komodo Dragons during our three mile hike that first day at Rinca Island, enjoyed a gorgeous sunset in a sheltered cove off the coast of Komodo and Kalong Islands, and watched as thousands of very large “flying foxes” took to the night’s sky. Bats. The next morning brought an early wake up and opportunity to hike Komodo Island where we’d once again spot another ten Komodo Dragons before going snorkeling.

The ranger drew the dragon's attention and took this photo while our guide, armed with a stick, protected us in case the dragon turned.

The ranger drew the dragon’s attention and took this photo while our guide, armed with a large forked stick, protected us in case the dragon turned around. Komodo Dragons are extremely fast over short distances.

This dragon on Komodo Island was prowling the ranger's quarters.

This dragon on Komodo Island was prowling the ranger’s quarters.

The dragons can grow to ten feet in length, from nose to tail, and were every bit as intimidating as I had hoped. Park rangers, armed with a lengthy, forked stick made sure we kept close together and stayed always, always, behind him. Komodo Dragons have attacked–and killed–humans and our guide Cuba “Call me Fidel Castro” on Rinca admitted to having to use the stick on numerous occasions. “Every year over 60 people apply to be rangers at Komodo National Park and only one or two make it through the training. This is very dangerous work,” Fidel said. Though it’s possible to survive a dragon bite, the toxic bacteria combined with the bleeding will likely kill any victims before they can reach the hospital at Bali, a ninety-minute flight away. Fortunately, the dragons eat only once a month and their preferred prey–water buffalo and deer–are still plentiful on the islands. Sadly, the dragons on Komodo Island did manage to wipe out the entire population of pygmy elephants that used to inhabit the island.

Lie on your back with knees bent, heels a hand’s length from your butt.
Hands behind your head, palms down, fingers towards your shoulders.
Slowly raise your hips and arch your back. Rise into Wheel Pose.

We smelled the incense from the tarmac: Bali. It was great to be back… home? It was late and we were tired. With our feet dirty from hiking a cave on Flores and in dire need of a shower, we did what anybody else staying in Penestanan would do. We headed straight to Alchemy and got two massive salads and a bottle of raspberry coco-biotic water. After all, our frequent salad-buyer card was full and we were due a free meal. And there we sat, flip-flops kicked off, feet on the couch, eating our kimchi-, coconut crispy kale-, and spicy cashew-topped salads, saying hello to the familiar faces, and smiling at the new ones. We no longer notice the half-naked children running around or the overheard snippets of conversations about spiritual healing. We only notice the great food, the warmth of the space, and the way we feel when we’re there: blissfully relaxed and healthy.

Always talk to strangers! We started talking to the neighbor of the warung where we were eating in Munduk and not only did he speak English, but he took us on a tour of the rice fields down in the valley below.

Always talk to strangers! We started talking to the neighbor of the warung where we were eating in Munduk and not only did he speak English, but he took us on a tour of the rice fields down in the valley below.

The next day, on a drive from Ubud to the immigration offices in Denpasar, we met a Swedish woman, Mia, who has come to Bali several times and now hopes to stay as long as she can. She just rented a house for a year and her excitement for Ubud mirrored our own. We’ve met others holding one-year leases with designs on staying in Ubud for as long as possible. It’s contagious. One of the many “digital nomads” residing here in Ubud she periodically works out of the popular co-working space Hubud and does yoga or walks in the rice fields daily. We’ve met several others like her; programmers, writers, women working on business plans, designers, and yoga instructors who have come to Ubud to live and work for as long as they can. “Hopefully forever,” they often add.

Lie on your back, feet at the corners of the mat, palms up near your sides in Shavasana.
Close your eyes and think of someone special who is having a tough time.
Send them a piece of the joy and peace you received here today.

Kristin sighed over her coffee this morning and, when prodded, told me that she was struggling to find a way to explain this place to her sisters. I had been thinking similar thoughts. What is it about Bali and, more specifically Ubud, that makes it so special? I’ll try to explain. It’s the natural beauty for starters. Of course. The seven minute walk from our house to Intuitive Flow each morning is a walk through Eden. But it’s so much more than that. Whether it’s the effect Ubud has on its visitors or the people who come to Ubud I don’t know — I don’t really care for chicken-and-egg dilemmas — but I know the people who are here are among the most welcoming, supportive, warm, and friendly people I’ve ever been around. And though we barely know any of them, we feel their warmth. It’s in their hellos, their smiles, and the way everyone seems to be assisting and encouraging everyone’s endeavors. It’s in the conversations we overhear, their love for themselves and the world and the way they care for what they eat and drink. It’s in the way people discuss what matters, really matters to every day local living, and completely ignore and dissociate from the manufactured noise that poses as news back home. Wherever that original home might be. There are no ill-spoken words, no tempers flaring, no rudeness, no ideology, no politics. Some would say it’s a bubble, but I think of it as an envelope of beauty and support where anyone, with any idea, can find nurture. The people we see each day, our new friends, ourselves, are not affected as I initially thought. We are both cause and effect of a place made by and for people who cherish the intrinsically good. From the native Balinese to the relocating Briton.

Nothing like sibling rivalry, err, love.

Nothing like sibling rivalry, err, love.

I’ll be going to Hubud several times next week to give the co-working space a proper test run to see if it is something that works for me. We’re still headed back to Italy in June to get our bicycles and continue our journey eastward, but my drishti has again changed these past few days. It’s settled back on that coconut palm and Penestanan and when I lie in Shavasana, my mind is not blank. It’s here. In Ubud, with designs on how we too can return. “Hopefully forever,” as the others say.

Congratulations: To Megan Knight, one of Kristin’s former co-workers, for winning the May “Postcard-and-More” giveaway. Woo-hoo! If you want a chance to win, just sign up for our newsletter via the link on the right-hand side of this page (near the top) and sit back and cross your fingers. And don’t worry, we respect inboxes of all shapes and sizes.

Thank You, A Favor: Our blog and FB page have been getting a lot of increased traffic lately and, whether by coincidence or as a direct result, there’s been a noticeable uptick in sales/borrows of my travel story “One Lousy Pirate” on Amazon these past two months. Thank you so much, I hope you enjoyed it! If you were one of the super awesome people who downloaded the book, could you do me a favor and leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads? Reviews are extremely important for indie authors like myself and, unfortunately, only about 1 in 500 readers ever leave a review. Don’t feel bad, as I’m guilty of it too. But if you read the book and can take a minute to leave a review, I’d really, really appreciate it. Thank you!