Hong Kong (the VIP tour)

Honk Kong Island skyline by night

standing on the shores of Kowloon at night peering across the great harbor toward the lit up skyline of Hong Kong Island, it’s hard not to stare and then keep on staring.  the eye carefully follows the outline of building tops from right to left then changes focus to the many ferries and junks that cart passengers back and forth across the harbor at regular intervals.  then onto the harbor itself when the florescent glow of the water distracts from everything else.  a scan of the water’s surface – this time from left to right reveals the fluent transition from each color to the next.  the skyscrapers shine exactly as we intend them to but the water below drinks their shine, obscures it and serves it back up as if to voice its own take on the matter.

zooming in now at mid-level as night turns to day, we see the compact lives of the million+ people who inhabit this ten kilometer long strip of land mostly made up of tall skinny buildings either built into the steep hillside or on newly created land that was once the harbor itself.

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at ground level, the streetcars even mimic the building’s tall and slender physique.

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facing north now back across the harbor in the direction of Kowloon you can see the many ferries loading and unloading passengers. if you want to visit the beautiful islands of Honk Kong, this is your jumping off point.

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zoom out again on a clear day, this time from the other side atop the island’s peak just in case you need hard proof that the city looks good from all angles.

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but what am i doing here?… and more importantly, what is Hong Kong doing here?

these are all fair questions…

what is Hong Kong doing here?

what exactly is this collection of small steep hilly islands covered with random patches of skyscrapers doing on China’s doorstep?  a trip back to Kowloon to visit the Hong Kong History Museum will surely shed some light on this matter.  please enjoy this slightly embellished recap of historical events…

during the good ole’ imperial days, several different ethnic groups across China flocked to these lands mostly to seek solace from war and famine.  they co-inhabited these lands generally in peace while sticking to their own kind until one day the very curious Portuguese landed on their shores and opened their harbor to world trade.  it didn’t take long for the British to catch wind of this and open up their own trade routes with China especially after discovering that they had tea!  by the early 19th century, the British Empire became heavily dependent on the import of Chinese tea among other goods and in return they could trade with them their… well actually that’s a sore subject you see because as it turns out, the Chinese had no real interest in any British made goods whatsoever, so instead they just asked for silver, lots and lots and lots and lots of silver.  not quite able to say no to tea, the British moved forward with this arrangement and caused themselves a huge trade imbalance in the process until eventually the dire dilemma on everyone’s mind had to be solved – “seriously Brits, there has to be SOMEthing you have that China wants besides silver.”  and sure enough the answer had been right there staring them in their faces all along.  Opium!  fields and fields of sweet sweet opium.  so the Brits loaded up their ships with crates upon crates filled with opium globs the size the cannon balls, sailed to Hong Kong and hand delivered it to the Chinese where it spread like wildfire.  now, finally the British could sip their tea in peace knowing that their economy wont tank while they were very rapidly turning China’s citizens into drug addicts.  more than unsatisfied with its newfound opium den culture, China attempted to nip the matter in the bud by outlawing the drug, dumping all of its opium into the Hong Kong harbor and asking the British nicely to cease future import of the drug to which they both agreed to and ignored at the same time.  this caused a bit of animosity which then lead to a series of battles known as the Opium Wars which China struggled to defend itself against.  by the time the war dust had settled, the British had claimed both Hong Kong Island and Kowloon for its own and then proceeded to grow the territory into a prosperous British city-state.  then in the interest of expansion, they convinced the Chinese to lease them the surrounding lands known as the New Territories thus defining the boundaries of what we know as Hong Kong today.  Hong Kong remained under British rule (except for a brief occupation by those pesky Japanese during World War 2) until 1997 when their lease was up and the British had to fork it all back over to the People’s Republic of China.

(and they all lived happily ever after)

What am i doing here?

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Catherine vs. Hong Kong

the answer to this question is simple.  i am here to visit Catherine.  Catherine is a British born world traveler, attorney, philanthropist and long time friend of the family.  my parents met her some years ago during one of their crazy world traveling expeditions and then quickly adopted her as their own (or was it the other way around?).  she has been living in Hong Kong for many years and knows the place better than most.  and since i was in the neighborhood (now that the world *is* my neighborhood), i could not pass up an opportunity to see Hong Kong through the eyes of Catherine.  in the ten short days i was there, Catherine made sure that every moment was jam packed with exciting things including ferry boat adventures to near by islands, hiking along scenic trails, visits to temples and monuments and of course, tasting some of the best Chinese food in the world.

here are a some highlights of my Hong Kong VIP tour:

at least one day was spent on Lantau Island – home of the famous Tian Tan Buddha (aka. “Big Buddha”). this is actually the world’s tallest outdoor bronze seated Buddha. from there one can take a breathtaking cable car ride through the hills and down into the bay that overlooks the airport.

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later that evening a duck feast was in order. that’s right… one entire duck!

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another day was spent on beautiful Lamma Island for a full circumnavigation followed by a fish-face-feast

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any return ferry ride to Hong Kong island is a production in of itself as that suddenly skyscrapers/sea spray combo gets you every time.

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courtesy of Catherine

posh Dim Sum brunch at City Hall anyone?

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and finally, the dinner to end all dinners took place at the fabulous Hutong restaurant across the harbor and atop one very tall building in Kowloon.  here, the specialty is spicy mouthwatering soft-shell crabs with a side of panoramic Hong Kong skyline by night.

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Catherine also liked to exhibit her organized and sentimental side by creating cute scrapbook-style collages of each day’s events.  each of which document the above mentioned and more but my favorite ones cover the more random events…

like that day i got my shorts mended then drank a Hendrix gin martini…
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or that time i drank red wine out of a coffee mug instead of a wine glass…

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and lets not forget that shave i got at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel on my last day right before catching my flight…
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thanks for everything Catherine!  you have made my last days in Asia truly unique, enjoyable and memorable.

courtesy of Catherine

courtesy of Catherine

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giving back

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i’ve been traveling the world now for over 450 days.  in that time i have visited some amazing places and met many wonderful people, but i have not as of yet had any meaningful impact on the world around me…. until now.

i recently spent eight days on the tiny secluded Filipino island of Panitugan volunteering for a private initiative called HIP that stands for “Helping Islets in the Philippines” (yes, “islet” is a word meaning small island).  when Typhoon Yolanda (aka “Typhoon Haiyan” if you don’t live in the Philippines) hit seven months ago, it devastated many communities in the Visayas region of the Philippines and beyond.  since then, the world has responded.  NGOs and travelers alike have flocked to these areas to provide aid and people from all over have donated money, fresh water, clothing and building materials to their cause.  while most of this attention has been directed to the worst hit island of Leyte, many more island communities have had to fend with little to no outside help.  the Bantayan Island Group is one such community and the primary focus of the HIP effort.  in the village of Sulangan on the southwest peninsula of the biggest island in this group is where our story begins.

where is this place?

where is this place?

from Palawan, a plane then a bus then a ferry brought me to Bantayan Island (a few kilometers west off the northern tip of Cebu Island).  there i was met by a very kind woman named Taling who escorted me to the Sulangan Barangay Hall – the local district office and safe house of the islets.  in addition to keeping the hall immaculately clean, Taling’s role is to store and distribute the building materials for HIP’s rebuilding projects.  boxes and supplies were piled high in the shed attached to the hall which doubles as a kitchen.  i slept soundly that night on the office floor and woke the next morning to a hearty breakfast of spam and eggs.  Taling explained to me that i was to be sent to the islet of Panitugan to aid in the reconstruction of a daycare center.  i didn’t know it at the time but i was about to be the first foreigner ever to have stayed on this islet.

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meet Taling

meet Taling

later that day i was invited to be an honored guest at a special event organized by Oxfam – a British based NGO that came to Bantayan to help the fisherman by rebuilding the many banca boats that were destroyed by the typhoon.  they were celebrating the completion of their newly refurbished fleet.  this involved a ceremony where a priest blessed every new boat followed by an extravagant pig feast and then a boat race.  i was of course elected to partake in the race where my assigned partner and i rowed with all our might out to sea and back.  we finished 3rd of 6 and were awarded 100 pesos.

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for the next order of business, i was to be transported to my new home on Panitugan Islet and introduced to my host family.

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Panitugan is roughly 1km in diameter and home to 200+ people.  even from afar i could tell that the typhoon was not kind to this place and after my investigatory walk around the islet the full scope of the havoc became evident.  devastated concrete structures stood roofless and the remains of fishing boats were overturned onto piles of debris.  most functional dwellings consisted of either woven bamboo and scraps of metal or tents that had been donated.

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at the far west end of the island where the brunt of the storm hit, a concrete facade of a church stands tall and proud while the rest of it lay in ruin.  several children have adopted this as their playground.  what i expected to be the usual kid-chaos actually turned out to be a highly organized effort upon closer inspection.

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my new host father was named Jesus Alolor though the people called him JC.  apart from being a well respected Burangay counselor, he was an enthusiastic man and continuous bundle of joy.  he and his wife took very good care of me.  they put me up on a bamboo bed in their kitchen hut.  mom would cook over a raised fireplace while dad worked on rusty boat engines.

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they also had the most adorable grandchildren that at any moment could be found at the end of a rainbow.

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when i arrived on location the following day for my first day of work i was greeted by the carpenters: Caloy, Armand and another man named Jesus.  they were already well underway installing the ceiling of the in-progress daycare center.

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forget hard hats and steel-toed boots.  this construction site was flip-flops and shirtless and i was lucky to have showed up appropriately dressed.

considering the fact that i had zero carpentry experience and spoke no Cebuano, my initial time with these gentlemen was mostly spent trying to stay out of their way.  they already had such elegant working synergy between them that my best hope in helping them was to stand back, watch and learn.  sometimes they would throw me a bone by pointing to a handsaw and then to a block of wood with a line drawn in it, or by miming to me that they desired something heavy be carried from one place to another.  i took on these tasks with pleasure and felt useful doing so and then went right back to my observing.  i had never before stopped to consider what actually goes into the making of a ceiling but as i sat and watched them take their careful measurements and make their calculations, their plan slowly began to make sense.  by the second day i understood enough of their routine to be able to anticipate their needs.  i could hand them their tools before they need ask and i could handle various setup/teardown tasks in advance to make their workflows and transitions go a little smoother.  i was quickly on my way to becoming a carpenter helper ninja.

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i established a live/work routine here pretty quickly.  each morning i would wake early to the sounds of the village, then eat breakfast while i watched the fisherman come by with the morning’s catch to divvy up among the villagers.  if you could imagine, fish was on the menu for almost every meal.  mom liked to prepare it either salted and deep fried, stewed in a rich vinegar broth or simply raw in spiced vinegar.  fresh, technical and delicious!

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at the end of each work day i would often submerge myself in the ocean at low tide to a setting sun.

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then it was onto the night’s entertainment.  in addition to being the first foreigner to stay on the island, i also seemed to have brought the only guitar.  the combination of these two things brought me quite a bit of curious attention.   on an almost nightly basis a crowd of people would gather around my kitchen hut and listen to my songs.  i threw everything i had at them, be it originals, covers, or their favorite – improvised gibberish.

i adjusted to islet life pretty quickly.  the more i walked the main drag to work in the morning waving to the familiar faces while sipping my coffee, the more i felt apart of the place and less like a visitor.  they all knew where i was last night and accepted my odd ways.  there were no secrets on Panitugan.

though i was at ease, not being able to converse with anyone was beginning to take it’s toll.  it was then i decided to try and befriend a partially domesticated heron.  despite my best efforts to give him a good first impression, our friendship in the end was just not meant to be.

 

finally, my host father introduced me to his niece Florida who lives on Moamboc – the next islet over.  she spoke wonderful English and pretty much immediately assumed the role of translator.  suddenly being able to communicate with my fellow villagers was quite the game changer.  one evening at low tide we walked to her islet and dined with her family.

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the work days were long but rewarding.  a couple of times i got to accompany Jesus on supply run missions to the big island to replenish our stockade of plywood, paint and fresh water.  Taling always awaited us at the main hall with a smile.

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Jesus secures the plywood

the tools and materials we used were in very short supply and often the carpenters would create the things they didn’t have out of the various leftover scraps.  they made due with what they had and applied an assortment of creative workarounds without complaint.  they are the true MacGuvers and they lead by example – everyone of which i cherished with my entire heart.

one evening after the painting phase had begun i managed to break the only paint roller handle we had among us.  i must have thought i was about to be so clever as i went for my trusty kit of surgical tape and super glue until Caloy saw what i was about to attempt.  he snatched the roller out of my hands and proceeded to carve his own handle out of a tree branch using his machete, then fastened it to the roller with a strip of rebar and some rusty wire, then handed it back to me and exclaimed “It’s okay?” (a rhetorical question).  and just like that, i was out-MacGuvered by the king of MacGuvers.

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one ceiling and several coats of paint later, the daycare center looked a little more inhabitable and my work on the Islet had come to an end.

before

before

after

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leaving this place was not easy. after only eight short days on Panitugan i had developed a unique bond with my new family, friends and coworkers. i had become a useful member of their small community and my hard work had earned me their respect.  i made a small yet noticeable impact on their lives and in the process felt like i belonged to something.  something larger than myself. something good.

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Jesus, Roark, Caloy, Armand

how could i possibly go back to being a regular old traveler after an experience like this?… lets go find out…

 

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Palawan

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The Philippines is an overwhelmingly large place with over 300,000 square kilometers spread over 7,000 islands, many of which are undiscovered by tourists and uninhabited by people.  one could spend a lifetime just scratching the surface of this country.  rather than swiftly hopping from place to place like an attention deficit lunatic (like i’ve done previously),  i decided to take the slower path and focus on fewer places deeper.  this time on the wonderful island of Palawan.

Palawan is a long and skinny 450 x 50 kilometer fairly undeveloped island located on the far west end of the country near to Borneo.  i arrived by plane to the capitol city of Puerto Princesa and spent the next 24 days exploring the island, relaxing on its many amazing beaches and interacting with its people.

Puerto Princesa itself is not on most people’s travel radar and many who come here are only passing through to more precious locations.  i was about to do the same until i went wondering one afternoon and stumbled upon a most intriguing place.  along the west shore of the town is a giant squatters area mostly comprised of fisherman and their families.  here, people have built their homes out of pretty much anything they can find, including old boat parts.  it’s a happy community who’s inhabitance were happy to invite me into their homes, talk with me and feed me fish and rum.  the children run wild by day and the men celebrate the days catch by night.  i hung around here for a good long while and made many friends.

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less then a year ago, the ground i was standing on when i took this picture didn’t exist. since then the local government has filled this area of the bay in with gravel, extending the shoreline out a couple of hundred meters in preparation to transform this entire area into a highbrow tourist-friendly zone. after over 20 years of calling this place home, all these people will have to relocate. it’s not something they are happy about but the unfortunate reality is that the community has outgrown itself and the dwindling supply of fish in this bay is no longer sufficient to feed everyone.

en rout to my next destination of El Nido, i stopped in the sleepy beach village of Sabang where i put my touristy hard hat on and ventured into an underground river… … … yay.

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El Nido is a coastal settlement on the northeast end of Palawan and the jumping off point to 45 small breathtaking islands.  needless to say, island hopping is the thing here.  hop on a boat and get whisked away to some prime snorkel spots and hidden lagoons.  then get fed unicorn fish on a beach before drinking beer and playing some volleyball.  El Nido is a secluded paradise and the traveling masses have only just begun to realize it.

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while here i befriended an excitable Spaniard named Javier and a sweet Swiss girl named Pam.  we latched on to one another pretty quickly and then explored our surroundings via motorbike.  we headed north and got lead through the jungle by a little girl to a waterfall.  what started out as innocent fun quickly turned dire when Javier decided to try and scale the wet rock face all the way to the top rather than take the foot path (don’t worry, he made it in the end).

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afterwards we rewarded ourselves with some water buffalo whispering, coconuts and puppies.

courtesy of Pam

courtesy of Pam

courtesy of Pam

courtesy of Pam

courtesy of Pam

courtesy of Pam

the rest of the day was spent beach hunting, which apparently is not hard to do in the Philippines.  there are just so many that there simply aren’t enough people to fill them all.

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and if you’ve ever tried to stare a chicken square in the eyes then you probably know by now that we are not important to them.

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we finished off that evening with a little beer (ok, a lot of beer) and balut on the beach.

belut = developing duck embryo that is boiled alive and eaten in the shell

belut = developing duck embryo that is boiled alive and eaten in the shell

we were a splendid trifecta…

courtesy of Pam

Javier, Roark, Pam (photo courtesy of Pam)

100 kilometers southwest of El Nido is the stunning and strange beach village of Port Barton.  its tiny network of dirt roads can be easily navigated while barefoot.  at the west of the beach a fisherman mends his nets.

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at the east end of the beach a pig does his daily exploring during sunset hour.

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and speaking of sunsets…

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i couldn’t bring myself to leave this place for eight full days.  partially responsible for this are the three lovely German ladies i met: Christina, Corina and Julia, who proved to be very worthy companions when it came to exploring the near by beaches and islands.

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courtesy of Corina

courtesy of Corina

courtesy of Corina

courtesy of Corina

and as it turns out, Port Barton is rife with jelly fish!



on our last night together and to celebrate Christina’s birthday, we commandeered a beached boat, drank way too much Tanduay Rhum and sang songs late into the night.  Christina had commanded me to learn Wonderwall by Oasis the night before and on this night i played it over and over until my fingers bled and my voice horsened.  Corina and Julia left early the next day and Christina and i then continued on back to Puerto Princesa for one final adventure before she too had to leave.

several kilometers outside of town is the Iwahig Prison and Penal Farm – a penal colony originally established in 1904 during the American occupation and is still in operation to this day.  visitors are welcome to roam about this vast colony as they please and will be warmly welcomed by inmates who will likely be busy farming, fishing and making handy crafts.  on this farm we found a local swimmin’ hole where families come to picnic and relax.  therein the water it was all out warfare when i took it upon myself to teach a lesson to some rowdy children who were playing the splashy game.  my tactic was to come on strong at first to rile the little beasts and then let myself get completely overwhelmed before finally conceding to defeat.

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i also incurred some battle damage in the form of a thorn that lodged itself deep into my foot.  there wasn’t a pharmacy in miles but there was a crude prison hospital run by inmates that we happened to stumble upon.  i decided to pay it a visit and ask them if i could borrow a pair of tweezers.  they didn’t have any tweezers (seriously? a hospital without tweezers!) but after one event lead to another, before i knew it there were three inmates all simultaneously operating on my foot with forceps and sharp needles.  they tore away at the year-long thick callus on my heel and scooped out the intruder.  it was hilarious at first but i had to stop them after a while when the pain became too severe.  all in all i can’t tell if the procedure was more helpful than damaging but one thing is for sure – i limped away from that experience with a new understanding of my own invincibility.

but nothing soothes a wound better than a little salt water and an epic panoramic sunset view from a vantage point overlooking Nagtabon Beach.

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it was a cool ride back to Puerto Princesa that evening followed by a sad parting of ways.  my final day on Palawan was spent in the good care of my fisherman squatter friends just relaxing…

…at a cockfight!

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Made in the Philippines

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the next highly anticipated stop on this endless journey of mine was my return to the Philippines.  this time to be reunited with my cousin CJ Whittaker in Mariveles at the southern tip of the Bataan peninsula to embark on an adventure of an entirely different sort.

mariveles_roark8you see, CJ is a pack man.  over the recent years, he has become highly specialized in the art of designing packs, working with factories to turn his designs into a tangible form and then baking them into an assembly line for mass production.  he is currently here in Mariveles to help startup a brand new company called “Cotopaxi” – an outdoor gear company with two worthy goals: to make quality outdoor packs and apparel and to help people while doing it by donating a portion of the profits to the specific charity that inspires each product (Cotopaxi is also the name of a volcano in Ecuador).  one advantage that Cotopaxi has over their competitors is that they are direct-to-consumer.  this means that you won’t find their products at your local REI (aka. middle man) but you will find that when you purchase their products, the quality/helping people bang-for-your-buck factor will be turned up a notch (to 11 in fact).  CJ’s role here as design manager is to design their product line and oversee its production.  i had the honor of accompanying him for one week to get a first hand look at his operation and participate in it as well.

a 3.5 hour flight from Bangkok to Manila followed by a 5 hour bus ride brings me to Executive Heights – a quiet hill side neighborhood just minutes from the factory that overlooks Mariveles Bay.  there, i was greeted by CJ and many Koreans.  the name of the factory that we’ll be spending the next week in is called “Dong In”.  it’s Korean owned with several locations around Asia.  this particular location consists of 6 buildings, 5415 employees and 3192 machines.  Dong In is world renowned for their pack producing capabilities and any pack man you ask will attest to that fact.  they are the main manufacturer for popular outdoor brands such as Gregory, Kelty and Camelbak.

but before work time it was play time.  since i conveniently arrived on CJ’s day off, i got to join him and his accomplices on a fun filled day in the sun.  we loaded ourselves and our gear into long boats and headed to a near by beach where we gorged on Korean campfire BBQ, went scuba diving off the shore and sang karaoke after a few too many sips of strong Red Horse beer.

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"I am I said..." (photo courtesy of CJ)

“I am I said…” (photo courtesy of CJ)

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this of course was only the beginning of the Korean hospitality i received during my stay here.  they also put me up free of charge in the pool house, fed me three square meals a day and granted me an all access pass to their espresso machine and beer fridge.

CJ explains to Aaron (from Tessel) the science behind Korean food

CJ explains to Aaron (of Tessel) the science behind Korean food

Monday came along the next day and it was time to start our work week.  from the moment i entered the largest of the factory buildings known as “East Cam” i was bombarded with stimuli.  almost 2000 Filipinos sat at benches in rows, each with a sewing machine, all working swiftly and fastidiously while classic rock blasted over the loud speakers.  just try to imagine the sound of 2000 tiny machine guns firing off all around you while an over-reverberated Ann Wilson sings her heart out (pun intended) in the background.

this week the majority of the sewers were all working on a big push to manufacture a new line of backpacks for one of Dong In’s largest clients.  for the sake of efficiency and continuity, each group of sewers were responsible for one small component of each pack.  each sewer therein would apply their stitch, hand off to the next sewer, take another from the pile and repeat.  further down the line where the backpacks start to take real shape, quality assurance checkpoints are put in place to weed out any packs that don’t meet the standards.  by the time a pack is deemed complete it will have passed through many hands.

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sewing however is only one piece of the pack puzzle.  Dong In is well equipped with the machinery and man power to handle all other aspects of pack manufacturing including molding, laminating, laser cutting, screen printing, welding and forging.

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to put it quite simply, backpacks are a big deal…  when you’ve got one slung across your back while going about your daily commute, trekking into that uncharted wilderness or hitchhiking to a faraway land, it’s easy not to consider the journey that your pack first had to take on its own so it could accompany you on yours.

before your pack even had the chance to reach its complex mass production phase, it first had to undergo a lengthy ideation phase.  what starts as a sketch on a piece of paper then morphs into physical form through countless iterations of trial and error until every stitch, buckle, pocket and zipper are in their exact rightful place.  this phase is where most of the hard decisions are made.  this is also where CJ and i will be spending our work week.

allow me to draw your attention up two flights of stairs to the sample room.  here, a wonderful woman named Sandra and her team of pattern makers, cutters and sewers work with clients to bring their designs to life by building prototypes and then iterating on them until they are production ready.

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the sample room

after just one day of watching CJ in action it became apparent that in order to be effective in a role like this, one really needs to be an artist, a MacGyver and a diplomat all wrapped into one.  CJ exhibits these three qualities admirably.  he is on a first name basis with most of the sample room staff and from the moment we set foot in there they all felt at ease around him.  CJ takes a collaborative approach to bringing his artistic visions to life.  he recognizes that Sandra and her team are the true experts of the craft and he solicits their input whenever he can.  he maintains an easy work environment while asking a lot of them.  it also helps that he rewards them all with Jollibee for a job well done.

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out to lunch with Sandra (photo courtesy of CJ)

out to lunch with Sandra (photo courtesy of CJ)

it’s often the case in sampling where an artist’s vision gets compromised by material logistics.  a plan that works so beautifully on paper can get foiled by reality when you learn that your cleverly laminated nylon/EVA foam concoction is not quite the elegant solution you hoped it would be.  it’s times like these when the MacGyver needs to come forth with the real-time creative workarounds necessary to keep the ball rolling (and no, paper clips and duct tape wont cut it).  my mind was opened to these realities this week as i watched both CJ and his colleague Aaron Puglisi (who is working on a line of packs that will lift you off the ground) MacGyver their way through many hard problems.

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in order to drive these ideas a little further into my brain, CJ had the brilliant idea to put me to work by having me design a product and get it production ready by the end of the week.  it has been over a year since i have had a job or anything resembling responsibility so you can imagine the excitement i was feeling at this point.  i graciously accepted his challenge and then started at the beginning of designing a new Cotopaxi product.

kickoff meeting paraphrased:

me: so… um… what should i design?

CJ: you are the world traveler among us.  what do you need?

me: well… i sure could use a snazzy case for my Kindle.  how about i design one of them and you can market it as a “Kindle Sheath”?

CJ: i probably can’t sell a Kindle Sheath but i *could* sell an iPad Mini case, one that you could most certainly use as a Kindle Sheath.

(he hands me a wooden replica of an iPad Mini)

me: ok, i’ll design one of them then.

CJ: make is so.

step one was to make lots of annotated sketches to get my ideas flowing and to come up with several design candidates.  so i did exactly that and gave them all clever code names like “Spectrum”, “Straight Laced”, Nintendo”, “Cubby”, “Minimalist” and “Mr Blank”.  after a brief design meeting we decided on an adapted version of Mr Blank.  i then drew up my final sketch complete with measurements and notes (the industry term for this is called a “techpack”) and handed it off to my new team.

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i first meet with Sandra and explain to her all my hopes and desires.

courtesy of CJ

courtesy of CJ

then Rodel draws and cuts out the patterns.

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then Mario cuts the fabric using Rodel’s patterns.

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then Dervine sews it all together.

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finally, Charlito binds the inside edges and within twenty minutes i have the first prototype in my hand.

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not only was prototype #1 a bit lackluster, but it wouldn’t sheath a Kindle or an iPad Mini.  from there it was a long uphill battle with sizing and finding that perfect laminated foam/fabric combination that wouldn’t warp when you turned it right-side-out.  finally, several days and 4 iterations later i had a prototype that would not only sheath a Kindle and an iPad Mini, but it would look cool while doing it.

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meanwhile back on the ground floor after their annual fire drill, the sewers take a well deserved rest before clocking out for the day.

fire drill

fire drill

then after the last sewer leaves, the machines, classic rock and lights all get shut off.

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when all through the factory not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse

however if you’re lucky, you might find them right outside engaged very competitively in a company wide volleyball or basketball tournament.

courtesy of CJ

courtesy of CJ

courtesy of CJ

courtesy of CJ

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‘congrats U-rock <3 Roark’

Cotopaxi is now in the final stages of development on their new product line and after having seen and sampled several of their final prototypes, i am thoroughly excited.  several thousand promotional packs are being assembled right here in preparation for their upcoming “Questival” event on April 11th and 12th in Lehi, Utah.  soon thereafter, Cotopaxi will raise the curtain and unleash their first-ever line of packs and apparel.




the best of luck to you cousin.  it’s been a very awesome and informative week!

3 Comments

so that’s what a year feels like

IMG_0388yup it’s official, today marks my one-year travel anniversary!  it was one year ago today that i left my home in Seattle, got on that airplane and never looked back.  ever since then i have been traveling non-stop.  in fact in this past year i have made exactly 118 stops in 10 countries and the longest i have stayed in one place is only 13 nights.  perhaps you are wondering how i know all of this?  those of you who know me even a little bit will not be surprised to learn that i have actually been keeping meticulous track of all of the places i have been this entire time and i think now is an appropriate time to share it all with you.

please allow me to introduce to you the “Travel Stats” page.  therein you will find both a per-country and per-place breakdown of my travels including an ongoing list of the now 20 motorbikes i have rented and the clever nicknames i have given them.  you will also find a link to my “TravellersPoint” profile which plots all of (well most of) the places i have been onto a map in a connect-the-dots sort of way. quite the tangled travel web i have woven eh? i will of course try to keep this page as up to date as i can.  i realize i have made a lot more work for myself by creating it but what the hell, a fellas gotta geek out somehow right?

happy travel anniversary to me!  don’t worry friends and family, i’ll come home eventually:)

1 Comment

the golden land

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as of August 28th 2013, the Union of Myanmar opened four of its borders to allow foreigners to enter overland from Thailand for purposes of actual travel and not just Thai visa runs.  a little more than four months later, i got to be among the first of my kind to cross at the Mae Sot border just 200 kilometers south of Chang Mai knowing that i could continue all the way into the heart of Myanmar.  i must admit it felt pretty good.

with only 28 days on our visa, Nicolas and i had a lot of ground to cover and we were prepared to sacrifice as much sleep as necessary to carry out our aggressive plan.  for the next 27 nights, i would end up spending only 19 in an actual bed.  the rest would be spent either in transit, on a hard bamboo floor or draped awkwardly across one or more chairs.  it was hard traveling but it was also some of the most rewarding.  here is a warp speed rundown of my Myanmar month:

once we made it across the boarder into the town of Myawaddy, the Thai comforts dissipated mighty fast as i felt the clock turn back to something like 1975.  ancient full-size trucks retrofitted with cheap lawnmower-sized engines whizzed through chaotic streets all crowded with friendly faces.  the looks we got were a little jarring at first but we soon came to recognize them as the unmistakable warmth of the Burmese people.  Myanmar is a country that adores its visitors.  it’s not even uncommon to see “warmly welcome and take care of tourists” signs posted in trains and on street corners.  not that the people need any reminding of course.  they simply are the most genuinely kind, honest and helpful people in existence.

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our first stop was Kyaiktiyo Pagoda, aka “The Golden Rock” – a precariously balanced gold leaf covered boulder  believed to be resting stable on a single strand of Buddha’s hair.  to get there one has the option of either the seven mile holy pilgrimage or packing one’s self into the back of a sixty person truck.  we chose pilgrimage.  i even did it barefoot.

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from there we took a bouncing train… that’s right, i said bouncing train…

 

…to the Mon state capital of Mawlamyine.  there we toured the giant Pa Auk Taw Ya Monastery/Nunnery and then got fed a free hearty meal which we gladly ate until our bellies burst.  the mosquitoes here are so thick that each monk and nun are provided with their very own meditation mosquito net.

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and i didn’t escape this town without getting a mosquito-bite Pangaea on my back

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dengue… malaria… bring it on!

 

on the nearby island of Ogre, a slew of useful products are made in miniature factories INCLUDING RUBBER BANDS!  have you ever wondered exactly how rubber bands are made?  perhaps this video will demystify the process for you.

 

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Yangon is Myanmar’s largest city and former capital.  settled and abandoned by the British, then bombarded with Chinese and Indian influences.  traversing the many streets in a zig-zag fashion is a must-do here.  the character-driven decaying colonial architecture mixed with just the right amount of chaotic street markets is really what makes this city shine.

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…though most people think it’s the Shwedagon Paya which actually does shine when the sunset hits in that perfect way.  Shwedagon Paya is a 100-meter tall gilded pagoda on the top of a hill surrounded by hundreds of ornate temples.  it’s the most important religious site in Myanmar.

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250 kilometers northwest from Yangon along the Irrawaddy River is the town of Pyay and home to the ruins of Sri Ksetra – the ancient capital of the Pyu dynasty.  after a long day of touring its impressive stone pagodas we took a stroll along the river to admire the riffraff and wreckage.  we came across one boat that was so encumbered with crushed rock it was almost sinking.  a crowd of locals used bamboo baskets and sacks to carry load after load of rock onto the shore.  i felt i had to do my fair share and help them out.

 

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courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Ines

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it was also here in the town of Pyay where my Myanmar experience took a turn for the even better.  Pyay acts as a fork in the road of sorts where many travelers are faced with one very important decision – “do i continue on the heavily treaded path knowing that my visa-clock will tick within my control? OR do i throw caution to the wind and spend an unknown amount of days attempting to travel deep into western Myanmar to and from the highly coveted town of Mrauk U?” (pronounced like a cat’s meow) – a medieval archaeological masterpiece of a place, bordering the very off-limits Chin state and home to the former 15th century Arakanese Kingdom.  the tension was quite high at breakfast that morning when Nicolas, me, a Slovenian girl named Ines and two German guys: Matthias and a soap opera star named Stefan were all trying very hard to talk ourselves down from such an adventure.  one thing you have to understand about Myanmar is that as long as you conform to the beaten path, most of your transportation will be straight forward and predictable.  you just board that twelve hour bus and arrive at your destination at 4am sharp.  oddly enough this rule seems to apply no matter where you are going or coming from.  but once you decide to stray from this path, things can get a little fuzzy.  as a foreigner visiting Myanmar, the government has strict guidelines in place dictating where you can and can’t go, how you can get there and where you can stay once you arrive.  there are many hotels in Myanmar but only a small fraction of them are licensed to house tourists.  there are often many ways to get from point A to point B but if the shortest way is not approved for your travels then i’m sorry man, you are just going to have to go the long way.  why?… there is no why.  as Myanmar continues to open it self up to the rest of the world, these guidelines concerning access and transportation will keep changing on a seemingly monthly basis.

…so therein lies the adventure, hence the high tension at breakfast.  the tension finally lifted once we admitted two undeniable truths to ourselves: 1. the worst thing that could possibly happen is that we try and fail and get so behind our travel schedules that we have to overstay our visas and get fined an alarming $3 a day!.. and 2. we had already entertained the adventure idea too long to back down now.  so it was settled.  me and my newfound ka-tet would set out that evening on a quest to reach Mrauk U the long way.

our first stop on this journey was the small port village of Taunggok along the west coast (via night bus arriving at 4am of course).  there we had a layover day while we waited for a boat that was rumored to anchor here only a couple times a week.  it didn’t take long to realize that this place doesn’t see many outsiders (call it traveler’s intuition).  soon after we set out later that day after taking some rest at possibly the only tourist licensed hotel, we were befriended by four small girls who could obviously see the lost looks on our faces.  they immediately took us under their wings and showed us the ropes.  they took us to the local pagoda where they taught us the correct way to pray to Buddha and then took us home with them where their mother fed us warm soda and biscuits.  the girls would huddle and whisper quietly to each other in order to determine the best use of english to use on us.  meanwhile the other kids in the village showed up one by one as if they could smell foreigners in their midst.

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courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Ines

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

not too far down the road is a Buddhist monastery for novice monks.  it’s here and many places like it where children come to be fed, housed and educated free of charge.  after a period of time, each novice must make the decision to either become a full fledged monk for life or head back out into the world.  it’s always a gamble when you barge into a monastery unannounced but here we were greeted with overwhelming positivity.  not only did we get to sit in on their sacred nightly chanting session, but we also got to fraternize with the elder monks.  the elders warmed up to us quickly and casually while the children could barely contain their astonishment.  needless to say, Taunggok turned out to be a layover day filled with unexpected genuine moments.

courtesy of Matthias

courtesy of Matthias

courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Ines

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Ines

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we spent the entire following day on a ferry boat that headed up the coast to the town of Sittwe.  the interior of the boat was frigid, crowded and fraught with ear piercing Burmese pop music videos but the exterior was serene and the coastline was some of the most stunning that i’ve ever seen (ah-ha, so *this* is why they make tourists go the long way).  we witnessed the sun rise and set from this boat and we passed most of the time on the back deck either reading or chewing betel nut.

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courtesy of Matthias

courtesy of Matthias

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Matthias

courtesy of Matthias

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

when we arrived in Sittwe we learned the hard way that all the tourist licensed hotels were fully booked so we had to use the Jedi mind trick on one hotel manager to coax him into thinking that it was a good idea to allow the five of us to occupy a three person room which was the only one they had left.  he was not comfortable with this idea at first but then gradually started to see things our way.  it was clear we had won him over when he came up with the brilliant idea to bring us an additional mattress that we could put on the floor.  none of this did a lick of good of course because at (yup you guessed it) 4am sharp we were all bludgeoned awake by the Burmese butchered version of Stevie Wonder’s “i just called to say i love you” being blasted at an ear damaging disciple level.  after taking a moment to realize who i was again i crawled outside and climbed up a nearby water tower to peak out over the wall at what vile beast could be making such a wretched noise and saw (yup you guessed it) a bus station… with just one bus that had just arrived and was packed to gills with people all bearing the same complacent stare.  the music was of course emanating directly from this bus.  from across the street i had to hold my head with both hands just to keep my sanity intact.  i couldn’t even imagine what it must have been like for all the people inside the bus.  i have been many places, seen many things and encountered many different cultures with an open mind but there are just some things in this world that i will never be able to comprehend.  i guess i just have to make my peace with that.

then after another full day on another breathtaking boat ride up the Kaladan River, we finally made it to Mrauk U (and it only took 4 days!).

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courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Ines

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mruak U was once the capital of the Arakanese kingdom – an empire that once reigned over much of Myanmar and half of Bangladesh.  now a fine collection of temple ruins remain scattered over a rolling hill landscape, many of which contain maze-like hallways filled with thousands of Buddha statues.

courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Matthias

courtesy of Matthias

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

further up the river, several remote villages along the Chin state border can be visited.  there one can see evidence of the old tradition of face tattooing of women.  it used to be that every female at an early age would be forced to get a grid-like pattern that was unique to their region tattooed all over their face.  this was meant to deter invaders from kidnapping them.  this practice has since been phased out by Burmese authorities but some of the older women can still be seen with the markings.  these days their primary job is to sit on display and let people photograph them.

courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Matthias

courtesy of Matthias

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

this woman takes a break from her human-zoo gig to massage buffalo shit into this woven bamboo basket.

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on our way back from the Chin border villages we decided it was a play-time-free-for-all.  this started off with dropping anchor and swimming in the river which then lead to commandeering a carved wooden canoe and attempting to operate it.  once we got the hang of that, Stefan and i tried very hard to establish our own private ferry service.  we were certain that the villagers had need to transport themselves and their goods back and forth across the river but despite our best attempts to help them or even humor them, we realized in the end that we were trying to solve a problem they simply just didn’t have.  meanwhile, Ines found herself getting put to work in a near by peanut field.  they of course paid her in the peanuts.  at that moment i got to taste a freshly picked peanut for the first time in my life.

courtesy of Matthias

courtesy of Matthias

courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Ines

 

we ended up spending four full days in Mruak U which is the longest time i’d end up spending in any single place in Myanmar.  we toured the town and surrounding area on bicycles and witnessed an epic sunrise.  on our final night together before going our separate ways they threw me a surprise birthday party.  that’s right!  using covert methods, they managed to gather and MacGyver a cake, 34 candles, hard boiled chicken and quail eggs wrapped in news paper and a party hat fashioned from a plastic water bottle.  it truly was the best darn birthday party a nomad like me could ever hope for.

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courtesy of Ines

courtesy of Ines

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

out here in travelland it’s not very often you find a group of individuals that jive as well as we did.  this right here is one crew for the history books.

courtesy of Matthias

left to right: Stefan, Matthias, Ines, Nicolas, Roark (photo courtesy of Matthias)

 

the next leg of our journey was not the one for the faint of heart… nor any heart for that matter.  we had just learned about a new bus route that had been approved for tourists only three weeks prior.  it connected Mrauk U to Mandalay (Myanmar’s second largest city) and would end up taking 22.5 hours.  this would be by far the longest single bus ride i have ever taken in my life but i still felt lucky to be on it because it meant we didn’t have to backtrack for 3+ days in a direction we’d already been.  Nik and i were slightly short of mortified once we saw the thing that would take us there.

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at first it was actually pretty funny but then reality began to sink in once people actually started to board the thing.  and then we just… well… boarded the thing… because that’s what ya do.  soon after we hit the main road the bus filled with consistent gusts of dust that billowed in through the open windows and the many holes in the walls and floor.  it became quite cold at night too.  i wrapped my face and body in all the clothing i had so i could breath and stay warm.  i managed to get some sleep on some of the gentler roads by turning around, wedging my body down underneath the seat in front of me and using my seat to support my head.  i could only sustain this position for twenty minutes at a time before my entire right leg would become numb.  luckily there were several security checkpoints along the way which allowed us to stretch our legs and beat the dust off of our clothing.

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unfortunately for the most part i found Mandalay to be a flat characterless sprawl of a place but with one saving grace witch was an awesome performance by the Mustache Brothers – a comedy trio who gained world wide recognition when two of its members got sentenced to seven years hard labor after publicly poking fun at their government back in 1996.  they were released after six years and put on house arrest after Amnesty International lead a campaign.  now they are only allowed to perform for foreigners out of the garage attached to their house.  there were only two brothers left when i saw them.  one had passed away five months prior due to kidney disease, which the brothers suspect is a result of lead poisoning from the prison water tanks.

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from Mandalay we took yet another bouncing train ride…

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…into the Shan state village of Hsipaw and embarked on a 3-day/2-night trek lead by a “Mr. Lion Man” – probably the most sought after trekking guide in these parts.  best known for his ability to consume mass quantities of rice wine and fall asleep just about anywhere.  and if you can imagine, he is also quite popular with the ladies.

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Mr. Lion Man

once you get past his hard liver and good looks you’ll find a top notch guide with worthy knowledge of the region and a heart to give you the most authentic experience he can.  Nik and i, along with an Aussie named Brad and a very nice couple from my home town of Seattle, followed Lion Man into the unknown.  we traversed the beautiful country side, visited schools with classes in session, greeted villagers in their local tongue, ate elaborate meals cooked in the fire place of people’s homes and then slept on their floors.  it was a fantastic first introduction to the gentile, kind and hospitable rural Shan people.

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on my final day of the trek i woke up a different sort.  considering all of the places i’ve been in this past year and all of the questionable things i have ingested, it is surprising to me how little i have become ill.  i was actually beginning to think i was invincible and this was becoming a source of pride in my life.  well, today the record was set straight because i was sick as a dog.  i was also not the only one.  Nik had been up the whole night before hurling his guts out in the horse stable outside.  i couldn’t keep anything down either.  every bone in my body ached and we had a long hot road ahead.  each step i took seemed to take a little longer while i became more dehydrated and the sun became hotter until finally a plume of smoke revealed itself on the horizon.  the end was in sight and a smidgen of hope was in my heart.  well as it turns out, that plume of smoke was nothing more than a burning field but by then the hand full of painkillers (a godsend from Nik’s personal stash) i fought with all my might to keep down were finally starting to do their job.  i am pretty sure that if you looked up the meaning of the word “miserable” in the dictionary that day you would have seen this picture with a caption that read “this man is miserable”.

this man is miserable

this man is miserable

 

by the following day i was feeling much better.  i also woke everyone up at 6am to partake in the live streaming of an audio broadcast of the Super Bowl.  the connection was far from adequate but my new Seattle friends and i still managed to piece it all together.

IMG_2317at the north end of town in a decaying Shan palace, a woman named Fern has an incredible story to tell.  she paints a very clear picture of her husband’s uncle Sao Kya Seng – the last Shan prince of the region who ruled in this palace along side his Austrian wife.  he along with all the other princes were imprisoned in the early 60s during the military coup and then later released.  all except for Seng who was never seen or heard from again after that and to this day the government denies ever having arrested him in the first place.  after Sang’s wife and children left the palace to move to America, Fern and her husband Donald were asked to be caretakers.  Donald used to show tourists around the palace until he got arrested in 2005 for “operating as an unlicensed tour guide”.  the palace laid quiet until only last year when Fern opened the doors to the public once again.  her mission is to educate anyone who is willing to listen.

Nicolas, Brad and i had not quite had our fill of trekking by the time we reached Inle Lake so we booked another 3-day/2-nighter that wound through the foothills next to the lake.  on our first night we stayed at a Buddhist monastery in the tiny village of Yin Phar.  right next to it, a foundation had been dug into the side of the hill to build a new “oration building” to be used for the induction of new monks.  as they explained to us, before a single brick is laid the ground must first be cleansed.  this of course involves an elaborate ceremony followed by a feast, which means that the timing of our arrival in Yin Phar was just about perfect.  all the villagers came in their best attire.  the procession music began and the monks marched up the hill and gathered around the opened ground that had a grid pattern drawn onto it with chalk.  they filed in and lined themselves in rows along one side of the grid, knelt and chanted, then rose, then graduated themselves one square forward, knelt and chanted again.  they kept repeating this until they got to the other end of the grid, then they positioned themselves on a different side and started all over again.  after completing all sides they moved on to other patterns, some of which were reminiscent of the classic video game “Snake”.  they went on like this all day long until feeding time.

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the feast was quite the ordeal.  everyone seemed to cook, eat and clean in shifts.  they packed themselves into raised bamboo houses and gorged themselves on a wide variety of dishes, many of which just can’t be explained.  i was well aware at this point that food in Myanmar is a complicated matter.  when staring down onto it, one can really appreciate it for the vibrant masterpiece it is.  but when it comes to taste, your experience can range from the most comforting thing imaginable to an awkward assault on your taste buds.  that dark brown substance on your periphery may seem harmless but once it comes in contact with your mouth, all out carnage will ensue causing your brain to think it has just been violated by the bitter sap of a pine tree.

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and of course there is the boiled pig fat…

courtesy of Brad

courtesy of Brad

 

our Inle trek concluded with a leisure boat ride on the lake itself.  Inle Lake spans almost 50 square miles and contains many villages, gardens, fisherman and other oddities as well.

 

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i’ll leave you now with this image of a sunrise taken from atop Buledi temple in Bagan – by far the most visited place in Myanmar with a flat desert landscape and the remains of over 2200 temples and pagodas.  at this hour, hot air balloons begin to line the horizon as the sun slowly starts to reveal a vast assortment of spires.

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Myanmar is the most beautiful and strangest, kindest and hardest to negotiate country i have ever been to.  it’s an extensive and rapidly changing world wrapped in a shroud of mystery with a convoluted history of corruption and oppression.  its ancient sights and gilded religious monuments are ubiquitous.  its vast fertile lands are plentiful with a diverse array of cultures, many of which are isolated and waiting to be explored.  none of this however holds a candle to the real charm of these lands and that’s the people that live there.  hospitality, genuineness and selflessness take on new meanings when you come to Myanmar.  it’s no secret that the people here have endured a long road of injustice and have been humbled by it.  many are too shy to discuss it but they all seem patient and hopeful for the inevitable overhaul of their government.  much of this hope is placed in tourism and many locals will view your visit as an agent of change for the better.  and when you do visit Myanmar you will have the chance to take part in this change by taking every opportunity you can to evade supporting their government in all its various forms.  a great deal more of this hope is placed in key events that will transpire over the coming year that could likely expedite this change and drag Myanmar kicking and screaming into the present.

Thanks Myanmar.  keep opening those flood gates and i’ll keep cheering you on from the sidelines.  that was one hell of a month we had.  one that i will never forget.

 

 

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5 Comments

reunification rampage

happy_new_year5

with my brief jaunt through the Philippines quickly coming to an end and Christmas and New Years not too far off, i had to make some decisions about how, where and with whom i would spend these monumental occasions.  as things would have it the heavens were aligned quite nicely because i would end up embarking on a nice little reunion tour which i like to call “Reunification Rampage”.

my first stop was Singapore.  there, i spent the next ten days in the good care of my Canadian friends: Erin, Kate and Sandee.  while the girls were at work each day i stayed home and played housewife.  this involved cleaning their kitchen and watching movies in their clean air-conditioned apartment.  i kept it simple and did not stray too far from the hive while i obtained a deep level of relaxation in good company.

cover-solitude_made_easyearly one morning i awoke to find some very exciting news from my good friend from home Cody Field.  he had just finished his full length debut music album.  i immediately put it in my ears on continuous repeat and it soon became a new soundtrack to my travels.  allow to me introduce you to “Solitude Made Easy“.  i strongly encourage you all to pour yourselves a very tall glass of warm bourbon, put your headphones on and immerse yourselves in its crisp, gritty, heart wrenching, brutally honest, melodic, and extremely listenable tracks.

on my final evening before staying up all night and exiting the country, Erin and i attended a mixed martial arts event where we got to witness round after round of both men and woman beating the shit out of each other.  fights lasted three to five rounds and ended in knock outs, choke outs and the occasional limb getting pulled out of a socket.

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from Singapore came the three nights and two days of hard travel to the island of Koh Tao in Thailand.  there i was reunited with my Belgium friend Lieselot who i had trekked with in Nepal six months prior.  i showed up at her door on the morning of Christmas eve an exhausted lesser form of myself.  since we last parted, she had managed to become a certified divemaster in Koh Tao (the scuba dive training capital of the world) and is now living her dream and working at the Scuba Junction dive shop.  though i never actually got around to diving while in Koh Tao, i did spend a great deal of time at Scuba Junction with Lieselot and her diver colleagues.  still very sleep deprived i managed to pull through and join her and the others in a proper Christmas eve celebration on Sairee Beach.

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coincidentally, my very good and long lost friend Nathan also happened to be on Koh Tao during this time.  he had come to Thailand to vacation with his girlfriend and her family whom he liked to refer to as “the Swedish army” (them being Swedish and all).  for the next week and a half we slid into a routine of sipping rum on the beach and eating street pancakes late at night after the army was put to bed.

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Nathan has lead somewhat of a unique and driven life.  after graduating at the top of his class with a computer science degree, he moved to Switzerland to become a doctor of neuroscience.  after completing that he decided to take a year off to make a music album which he has now finished and is currently working on the live show and marketing components for said album.  after building up the album to me for an entire week cover-madnaxhe finally unleashed an advanced copy on me and i could not be more pleased with it.  his electronic arrangements and smooth spooky voices are both refreshing and addictive.  i also can’t help but develop a huge smile on my face when i listen to him sing about zombie love.  he has also given me permission to share it with those i deem worthy (in this case, being those of you have managed follow my blogging adventures for these ten long months).  introducing “Madnax – The Old Branch Never Falls (Friend Edition)”: you can stream it here or download it here.

my final reunification occurred after being on Koh Tao for a week when my long time French Canadian travel companion Nicolas arrived just in time to help us celebrate the new year.  this is the 5th time i have connected with Nik on my travels and this time we mean to do some damage.

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new years eve on Koh Tao was an epic delight.  just imagine thousands of drunken foreigners spread out on a beach grinding to house music, huffing nitrous balloons and fornicating in the ocean.  i’ll leave you with that imagery as well as this video i made.

 

we stayed on Koh Tao, A.K.A. “The Rock” long enough to feel like it was our home (these days it doesn’t take much).  i got in some good friend time, some good beach time (and saw 5 blacktip reef sharks all at once!) and some good nostalgia time as i lead us on a walking tour of the places i visited last time i was on The Rock six years prior.

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when our time was up, Nik and i put our travel hats back on and headed to Bangkok to procure us some visas for the Republic of the Union of Myanmar.  while we waited we gorged ourselves on street food and cinema.

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we stayed at the fabulous Saphai Pae hostel where i had the pleasure of getting beaten up by a girl.

 

no stopover in Bangkok would be complete with out an evening spent on Khao San Road.  at this time of night the street is clogged with young tourists all stumbling along with their buckets of booze.

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Bangkok is among my most favorite cities on this Earth but we had to get out while we could so to escape the shutting down of the city due to the hoards of protesters who are currently trying to overthrow their corrupt prime minster.

our next and final planned stop in Thailand was Kanchananaburi – a chill town on the Kwai River and home to the historic Bridge on the River Kwai – yet another horrific World War 2 Japanese footprint.  perhaps you have seen the popular 1957 film of same name which depicts an incompetent Japanese army with no apparent bridge building skills and a camp of morale-hungry British POWs lead by Sir Alec Guinness who were determined to ‘show those Japs how it’s done’ and build the best darn bridge they could.  meanwhile, a covert operation successfully blows up the bridge with explosives soon after its completion.  well, as it turns out the film has very little historical accuracy.  the Japanese were actually very prepared with knowledgeable bridge builders who had learned how to do it right from British universities.  the bridge was then partially destroyed by Allied aerial bombing after a few unsuccessful attempts that inadvertently killed many of their own soldiers.  the bridge has since been rebuilt and now functions as a means to trap tourists into tiny colorful slow moving train cars.  the Kwai bridge was just one of many POW/slave labor efforts that contributed to the greater “Death Railway” that connected Thailand to Burma as a means to supply the Japanese soldiers who were in a huge hurry to invade India.  a project that cost the lives of over 100,000 people.  luckily for India, they never made it that far and now only sections of the original line remain in use.

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on our final day in Kanchananaburi we hiked up all seven tiers of Erawan Falls and became the child versions of ourselves in its many terraced pools.

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tomorrow we head for the Thailand/Myanmar boarder with a bag of crisp American dollars where we will attempt to cross into Myanmar overland.  a privilege that has been extended to foreigners for the first time as of last August.

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scratching a surface

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i arrived at Manila’s Ninoy Aquino International Airport on November 25th for the second time.  this time i cleared customs and checked into the Pink Manila Hostel in Malate city.  making the transition from easy comfortable Hawaii back to a jet-set backpacker’s life was a hard sobering blow.  one might think that after almost nine months of this, snapping into survival mode would come as easy to me as it would to John Rambo if you plopped him in the middle of a forest full of uncertain dangers.  the reality of the matter is that i’m nothing like Rambo.

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"A ray of hope for the Philippines in Manila" - new traveler friend Tuya

“A ray of hope for the Philippines in Manila” – new traveler friend Tuya

luckily for me, the light at the end of this tunnel was the promise that i would be reunited with a familiar face.  my dear friend from home Alisha Aufai just so happened to be at the tail end of her own odyssey and Manila would be the place that our paths would finally cross.  for the next two days i blissfully followed her every move and hounded her for stories of back home and information regarding the well being of our loved ones.  the whole experience only reconfirmed my suspicion that surrounding one’s self with people who have known you longer than a week is a crucial element to maintaining one’s mental and emotional stability.  a suspicion that i greatly underestimated last March when i said goodbye to everyone i know and love.

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with Alisha came new friends, including Tuya – a very sweet half Egyptian girl from New Hampshire and an older ex-military gentleman whose mission in life is to rescue young girls from a dismal life of human trafficking.  as he explained to us, he accomplishes this by posing as a customer with special needs that only a young girl can satisfy, procures said girls, then drops them off at an orphanage against their will.  you can quite literally think of him as the Robin Hood of prostitution.  needless to say, the four of us made quite the team.

one evening we set out from Pink Manila with the full intention of attending an ever popular nightly midget boxing event but instead became happily stuck at a cozy karaoke club.  i got to shed a few tears when Alisha performed a few of my favorite songs that she wrote.  then after the buckets of strong Red Horse beer came bottle after bottle of Tanduay Rum at less than $2 per liter.  then when a sizable group of Filipinas arrived the evening turned into a sloppy dance party, the details of which were a little more than fuzzy the next day.  Manila is just not one of those cities that likes to get a lot of sleep and i knew that if i stayed there too long i would eventually get pulled into a pattern of reckless behavior.  with Alisha leaving the next day and only three weeks budgeted for Philippines round one, i decided to tag along with Tuya up to the mountain province of Sagada in Northern Luzon.

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we arrived groggy in Banaue after an over-night bus journey.  this town is situated in a vast valley of steep terraced rice fields.  it’s also home to one of the most epic landscapes that Northen Luzon has to offer.

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from there we rode atop a jeepney up into the mountains to Sagada.

 

“jeepneys” are a staple of the Philippines as well as the most popular form of transportation.  they originated from the surplus of leftover World War 2 U.S. military jeeps.  since then, many more have been created in their likeness.  their owners pimp them out quite decadently with painted murals and hood ornaments.

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if you can imagine, Sagada is the crème de la crème of this travel jaunt.  a perfectly laid back cool village in the hills equipped with every excuse a traveler could need to get stuck for weeks or even months.  in several places around its periphery, hundred-year-old coffins are hung along side cliff faces.  and to top it all off (or rather to bottom it all off) there is a giant cave that extends for several kilometers underneath it.

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oh Sagada i just gotta!

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Sagada friends: Ryan, Iya, Tuya

Sagada friends: Ryan, Iya, me, Tuya

we signed up for the “cave connection” tour after the few days it too to calm our fears.  then we mounted our headlamps and spelunked barefoot for three hours through the most dangerous cave i have ever had the pleasure of surviving.  it began with a rapid decent into darkness as we contorted our bodies and squeezed ourselves through the tight cracks of a massive pile of fallen boulders until we reached an open cavern at its base.  then things got a little technical as we traversed along a section of a slippery rock face ten meters high.  then came the ropes course – a series of ups and downs, hoisting ourselves up overhangs and lowering ourselves down through crevasses.  after the worst of it was over we were rewarded with a break and a swim.  to make matters a little more interesting, a very nice Israeli guy we met along the way nonchalantly twisted up a spliff and generously passed it around.  at that point things just got silly.  our guide suddenly became adamant about pointing out all the various stalactite/stalagmite formations that resembled animals.  he would rush us over to some awkward corner and say “come take a look at this frog!” or “come take a look at this elephant’s head!”.  then he asked us to lay down on our stomachs and peer through a small opening at “the princess”.  when i did as he asked he started to laugh uncontrollably as i realized that what i was actually looking at was an impressively clear depiction of the princess’s nether regions.  there was something mildly comforting about hearing a laugh that genuine coming from a man who has been in this cave more times than he can count.  when we reached the heart of the cave we were presented with a smooth beautiful wavy rock formation that jutted up from the ground and resembled some kind of enchanted fortress.  embedded along the walls nearby were fossilized seashells from when this part of Luzon was submerged underwater billions of years ago.

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our cave-high inspired us to write this song (recording to follow eventually)

from Sagada we relocated to the busy town of Baguio then took a bus to Vigan – an old port town that was overtaken by the Spanish in 1572 and colonial-ified.  the sudden shift to old-world European architecture and cobblestone streets was quite a treat.

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after touring Vegan’s attractions and quaint streets for several hours my eye got caught on a “conjugal visit” sign.  then i realized we were standing in front of a jail.  an adorable jail.  and the front door was wide open.  so in we went on a sudden burst of over-confident impulsion.  when we got past the guard and crossed over into the main hall we were given a very warm welcome by the inmates.  the jail was comprised of two open courtyards joined together by a hall of dorm-style cells, many of which were decorated with magazine clippings of attractive women.  several inmates were playing cards in their rooms.  others were constructing Christmas decorations for the upcoming pageant that was to be held in the town square.  but the main attraction of this jail was of course the karaoke machine.  the inmates were all crowded around it and singing their hearts out one by one and when they saw us coming it was soon made clear that we were not getting out of there without taking a turn.  i gave into the pressure mighty quick when i realized they had my goto song.  i let loose on the microphone and belted out “I Am I Said” by Niel Diamond like i had done many times before at the Chinese bar up the street from my house back home.  then i finished her off with R.E.M’s “Losing My Religion”.

that night’s festivities was the annual celebration of the lighting of the giant Christmas tree in the town square and it was quite the spectacle.  all the town’s people gathered around to witness an automated fountain light show choreographed to music.  this was followed up by dancers and a choir of carolers.  Filipinos celebrate Christmas in the four months leading up to Christmas day.  as long as there is a “ber” in the name of the month, you can bet Christmas is being celebrated in the Philippines.

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after Vigan, some wind-down time was in order in the laid back surfing village of San Juan.  there i finally broke down and partook of an infamous delicacy of the Philippines called “balut” – a developing duck embryo that is boiled alive and eaten in the shell.  quite tasty with lots of salt though a bit disconcerting if your eyes are open because you can see all the cute little feathers of what was almost a life but ended up being a street snack instead.

another notable event that occurred while in San Juan was my 9 month anniversary of being a traveling fool.  when i first embarked on this odyssey on March 11th 2013 i told myself that 18 months would be the absolute longest i would stay adrift.  if i were to actually stick to this arbitrary time limit then this day would mark my half way point.  will i actually make it to a full 18 months or will i succumb to the physical, mental and emotional pressures of hard travel before then?  only time will tell.  what i can tell you at this stage in my travels is this: physically, i am solid as a rock and have never felt better in my life.  mentally, i am sharper than ever though occasionally tend to suffer from the fatigue associated with constantly having to make the same 25 minute decisions based on insufficient information (a condition that is easily medicated by a bout of relaxation).  emotionally, i have apparently blossomed a little.  the consistent barrage of new discoveries compounded with searing glimpses into the human condition has both humbled me and increased my capacity to care.  this has rendered me both excitable and sensitive, much like a child on a playground on the first day of school.  while this is indeed an extremely wonderful thing, i can’t help but ignore the slow growing void in my heart where my friends used to be.  don’t get me wrong, i have forged some uncanny bonds on my journeys but there is just no substitute for those relationships built upon decades of elbow grease, tears and hard compromise.  almost every night it’s always the same dream but in different forms.  i am back in Seattle surrounded by the ones i love and you all have the same confused looks on your faces fueled by the strong desire to know exactly what the hell i am suddenly doing there.  with that said, i still have enough wanderlust in me to feed an army of blood thirsty Gorkhas and for the foreseeable future i will continue to use this world as my playground.

upon returning to Manila i had the pleasure of being invited to a birthday party of a friend of a Tuya’s local surfer buddy Geno who lives downstairs from Pink Manila.  there, we were also reunited with our dear friend Iya whom we had met while in Sagada.  we were the first to arrive but the house was soon filled with a warm gathering of local friends, one pug and one pig.  the pug did all the oinking while the pig sniffed tirelessly at the carpet fibers.  there was a spread of delicious home cooking with a seemingly endless supply San Miguel beer to compliment it.  i could not have fallen ass first into a better situation.  this night’s love and camaraderie made the perfect lasting impression of a vast country whose lands and peoples i have only just begun to explore.

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you have not seen the last of me Philippines.  round one was a triumphant success but round two will blow the hinges right off!

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intermission

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i began my 53 hour and 50 minute commute early on November 9th in Singapore.  one calendar day and five airports later i set foot on American soil for the first time in almost exactly eight months.  no, not because i’ve finally decided to come home but rather to rendezvous with my awesome parents in Hawaii: an annual tradition many years in the making.

it goes without saying that my journey here was horrendously long.  time seemed to stand still in parts and actually even went backwards in some cases:

“ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking.  we have just crossed over the international date line which means that yesterday never actually happened.  this is however unfortunate news for passenger Roark Brewster.  not only can’t he erase his yesterday from memory, but he has to live it all over again.  thank you for flying Delta.”

this commute was the perfect opportunity to familiarize myself with the outer limits of my ability to deprive myself of sleep.  i learned a few times that if i stay awake long enough i *will* eventually pass out.  it will happen suddenly and it will make absolutely no difference what i may or may not be doing at the time.  then after 20-30 minutes i will be bludgeoned back awake when my necessity for rest takes a back seat to whatever numbness or pain i might also be experiencing as a result of the unnatural position of my body.  if i’m in a pinch during those crucial pre-boarding moments where passing out is simply not an option then all i need to do is assume an A-frame stance and maintain my center of gravity.  that way i’ll be sure to get jolted awake every time my ass hits the ground.  after a couple days of successfully maintaining this as-needed sleep pattern, my brain will out grow its hallucinogenic shenanigans phase and enter a foreshadow shutdown phase, at which point my brain’s cognitive functions will slow to a crawl and my thoughts will become a quagmire of gridlock.  during this time if a ticketing or customs agent needs me to answer a simple question like “what airport did i just fly here from?”  i will stare at her blankly while i search for the answer with the same success a blind person might have trying to locate a tennis ball in a gymnasium full of lukewarm butter.  then if i try to open my mouth before the answer is readily available i will end up making a “jjjjjjje” sound.

i put together this timetable of events of my commute from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur to Manila to Nagoya to Honolulu to Kona:

7:30am – 8:00am:             bus to SIN        = 00:30 (Sat Nov 9)
8:00am – 10:00am:           at SIN               = 02:00
10:00am – 11:00am:         SIN -> KUL     = 01:00
11:00am – 2:15pm:           KUL layover    = 03:15
2:15pm – 6:05pm:             KUL -> MNL    = 03:50
6:05pm – 6:15am:             MNL layover    = 12:10 (Sun Nov 10)
6:15am – 10:30am(+1):    MNL -> NGO   = 03:15
10:30am – 9:50pm:           NGO layover   = 11:00
9:50pm – 10:20am(-19):  NGO -> HNL    = 07:30
10:20am – 5:30pm:           HNL layover    = 06:50
5:30pm – 6:15pm:             HNL -> KOA     = 00:45
6:15pm – 8:00pm:             KOA to condo  = 01:45

TOTAL DURATION: 53:50

 

but enough about that…  lets talk about Hawaii!

hawaii1my parents, being seasoned adventurous world travelers (the likes of which make my adventures seem like field trips to the zoo) have more or less invented the concept of the “traveler’s vacation”.  like a normal vacation complete with comforts and spoils set in a familiar and easily negotiable environment, the travelers vacation has an extra added emphasis on engaging in absolutely no sight-seeing whatsoever and the doing of not a whole lot of things.  it’s a vacation meant to relieve a weary traveler from the pressures of having to make decisions and learn things.  through years of trial and error they have found the perfect place to accomplish this at the Mauna Lani Point, 30 miles north of Kona on the Big Island.  there, a quiet grouping of condos sit on a golf course at the end of a peninsula surrounded by volcanic rock.  from here one could walk to a nearby intimate beach to enjoy some of the best snorkeling on the island or just simply jump right in from the 15th hole.  this is one of the few places in the world where golfers and snorkelers co-mingle on a daily basis.

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there are about three hundred resident manta rays that frequent this greater coastal area.  at night, many of the resorts and dive shops shine spot lights into the water which attract plankton which in turn attracts the mantas that feed on them.  there also happens to be a well known manta ray cleaning station about two hundred meters off shore from the “signature hole” right in our front yard.  there, mantas will gather 2-3 at a time and circle endlessly while small cleaning wrasses nibble the parasites off of them.  their wingspans can get as long as 20 feet.  they are nearly unafraid of humans.  after watching their graceful movements and getting up close and personal with them for a few days i was inspired to capture it (as well as a spotted eagle ray) on this video, put to a song i wrote and recorded last year:

 

Hawaii has some of the most interesting underwater topography created from volcanic activity including lava tubes, arches and shooting spires.  my dad and i got to experience some of the best of it on two scuba dives.  our first dive was all about smiling for the camera.  whether it be with this octopus sucking on my face…

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or with this random cow skull crown.

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our second dive was one that put our claustrophobia to the test when our divemaster lead us through a series of lava tubes that became progressively tighter the further we went.  so tight that we had to turn to our sides in places to become as flat as possible.  even then i could feel bare metal scraping rock as i pulled myself to freedom.

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no family vacation in Hawaii would be complete without at least two trips to my most favorite restaurant on the planet.  ladies and gentleman, allow me to introduce you to “Sushi Rock“.  located in the small town of Hawi, a New Yorker named Peter Pomeranze has been running a unique and intimate sushi establishment for a over nine years.  he has managed to artfully incorporate the island’s finest and freshest ingredients into a sushi-like experience,  the likes of which will leave you in a constant state of joyful surprise as indicated by your own mouth watering moans.  the menu knows no fear and will often showcase non-traditional ingredients like pesto, caramelized unions, mac-nuts, fuji apples, cilantro, goat cheese and grass-fed tenderloin.

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when it comes right to it there are basically three main reasons why i come to Hawaii every year: 1) to reconnect with my lovely parents who i often don’t get to see otherwise, 2) to breath the soft calming Hawaiian air and 3) to dine at Sushi Rock.  and it’s when and only when i walk through these doors do i get to experience all three of these things simultaneously.

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besides sushi we primarily subsisted on gourmet fresh fish dishes, expensive wines, IPA, martinis and real American cheeseburgers.  being reconnected with real ground beef, cheese, good beer and my favorite gin after so long made me emotional at times.

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Hendrix martini with a slice of cucumber (bruised to perfection)

Hendrix martini with a slice of cucumber (bruised to perfection)

 

in the evenings we huddled around a laptop to watch our favorite tv shows and sip libations until sleep overtook us usually at around 8 or 9 o’clock.

we held this routine for 13 nights.  this is also the most nights i have slept in the same bed since i left Seattle over 8 months ago.  early in the morning on the 14th day i breathed the soft Hawaiian air one final time then headed for the airport.  during another long layover in Honolulu i managed to make the kind check-in agents at the Delta counter a little nervous due to the fact that i was attempting to leave the country with no return strategy.  after almost two hours of persistent arguing and pencil pushing interlaced with a few gentle words to calm the fear in their eyes, Delta finally let me leave America and i have never in my life been so happy to do so.  my final destination will be Manila.  once there, i’ll embark on a hard targeted three week jaunt through Northern Luzon.

 

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Sing City

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a spectacular aerial view of one of the largest ports in the world glutted with ships was my grand welcoming to the sovereign city-state of Singapore.  not only was i pleased to learn that my leftover Brunei money was good here but i had the exact right amount to secure my maximum allowable limit of duty-free spirits and/or wine and/or beer.  i had little trouble negotiating the super-clean-tidy-efficient train system to the Beary Nice Hostel in Chinatown where i was greeted by a very petite, sweet and helpful half Indian/Malay girl who showed me to my bed.  i don’t usually stoop to the dormitory level but in Singapore, procuring a clean bed in a room full of strangers is a privilege you will pay dearly for.

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i was reunited yet again with my French-Canadian travel companion Nicolas who had already been in Singapore a couple of days.  for him that’s just enough time to solidify an entire map of this mega-city in his brain cross referenced with points of interest and strategies.  after spending almost half my odyssey-time to date with this man, i know him well enough to let him lead the way when he gets that certain excitably driven look in his eye.

we were told that any traveler worth their salt knows that the very first place you go in Singapore is the Singapore City Gallery where you will find a giant architectural model of the city with an hourly light show presentation overlaid onto it that describes the history and creation of this living breathing utopia.  while there i was also surprised to learn that Singapore goes to great lengths to make its water drinkable,  all the garbage they cannot recycle is incinerated, loaded onto barges and dumped on a nearby island, and that the city actually extends 120 meters into the earth to house sewage lines, service tunnels, a subway system, a super highway and a large stockpile of oil and ammunition.

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from the top of the Marina Bay Sands (a.k.a.- the world’s most expensive standalone casino property, a.k.a.- those three 636 foot tall towers with a giant concrete boat resting across the top and infinity pool spilling over the side) one can see the breathtaking view of Gardens by the Bay: the wet dream of both the architect and the botanist.

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notice the two booby-shaped bio-domes on the left: “Flower Dome” and “Cloud Forest”.  one contains an odorous collection of exotic flowers and cacti while the other contains a ‘fountain mountain’ with a variable climate that supports a wide variety of tropical plants found at all elevations.  in the mountain’s core is an exhibit called “+5 degrees”: a video countdown that postulates exactly how fucked we are all going to be and when as the average global temperature increases 5 degrees over the next 87 years.  the bio-domes are slanted to one side to collect rainwater for the garden’s built-in irrigation system.  the “Supertrees” on the right side function as the garden’s ventilation system as well as collect enough solar energy by day to brilliantly illuminate the gardens by night.

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while wandering about these domes, gardens and compounds, in addition to buying off on the Utopian Singapore sales pitch, i truly felt as though running into folks wearing Starfleet uniforms would be the next logical chain of events but sadly that was never the case.

the Marina Bay Sands is a newer addition to the Singapore skyline.  at its base sits a giant shopping mall with an indoor water way that runs the length of it.  you can stroll at your leisure or take a gondola to the other end where you will find the world’s largest atrium casino.

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utopia or not.  walking barefoot on the spotless orderly streets or looking out over the monolithic jagged skyline, it’s not hard to be impressed by just how far the city has come from its former state 70 years earlier.  the Old Ford Motor Factory was the sight of the British surrender to the Japanese in 1942 when Singapore entered its darkest time.  the factory has since been converted into a museum that showcases Singapore’s bleak and bloody side with tedious detail.  amidst the chronologies are a few heart wrenching accounts (like this one and this one) from people who witnessed the Japanese cruelty first hand.

Little India is a smaller slice of real India only with 99.99% of the rubbish, smells, klaxon and Indians removed.

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Little India

Chinatown

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the cherry on top of the whole experience occurred outside of the city where our newfound Canadian friends: Kate, Sandee and Erin hosted a dinner party in our honer.  the food was delicious, the wine was red and the conversations stimulating.  thank you girls from the bottom of our hearts.  i couldn’t possibly convey what a warm welcoming like this means to a guy who’s been on the run for so long.

early on my final morning in Singapore i headed back to the airport to embark on the longest commute i have ever attempted in my life: a 54-hour slog involving five flights all with extremely long layovers in between.  when i arrive at my final destination i’ll be on American soil for the first time in eight months.

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