Archive for the ‘Travel’ Category

IMG_4331

Today marks 100 years since the inception of the US National Parks Service. Normally I’m not much more than a passing history buff, certainly not when it comes to government programs, but this one in particular not only represents some truly great moments in my life, but is tasked with preserving and representing what are to me some of the greatest and most important parts of the country. In a time of burgeoning industrialization and expansion we had the foresight to not only set aside these places against our own talent for destruction, but to recognize that they needed an agency to continue their defense and to educate new generations about what makes them truly remarkable.

My introduction to the wilderness of the US actually started in a state with very little federal parks presence, but with an extremely visible delineation between protected and unprotected land. As I was growing up whenever we would travel from the valley into the hills and mountains we would pass vast areas of barren hillsides, denuded by logging. The contrast to the rich, lush green of the still untouched forests of protected wilderness areas was as stark a lesson as any children’s book, more lasting even than the pastel pages of Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax. This was very real loss happening before my own eyes. Growing up around logging and mills and with my dad working for a stint as a reforestation tree planter I knew that this destruction was not undertaken frivolously, but it was nonetheless a visible scar, the hills a Frankenstein patchwork of tree growth and the obvious sweeping hand of industry.

Ironically my first real exposure to the national parks was Volcano National Park, a place notable for a significant lack of trees. But the most important aspect of this park wasn’t necessarily preservation, but education. This was one of the best places in the country to see the earth itself function as a living, changing thing and see how we came to understand it. This park was also a prime example of protecting us from ourselves, as without guidance a shocking number of people would try to wander into a live volcano.

In 2005 I set out on my first ever multi-state road trip that spanned a significant section of the northwestern US in just under 2 weeks. Initially I had intended to hit a few highlights on my way from Oregon to Colorado and back, but the further I went the more I realized just how many parks I passed, some I had never even heard of. When I saw a park or monument on the map near my designated route, I had to detour to it. Some were iconic, like Devil’s Tower or Little Bighorn, others were simply grand and could only be sampled in relatively small portions like Rocky Mountain National Park. Each place was a unique and humbling experience.

On this trip I began my habit of keeping every National Park Service map as a souvenir, marking off the seemingly endless number of parks. While not representative of all the places I’ve been, for instance just last month my dad and I visited Crater Lake National Park however I neglected to get a map as we walked in off the Pacific Crest Trail, it reminds me of all the fantastic places in the US I’ve been and have yet to see, and for most cases would love to go back to. Before I even moved back to the US from my time in Australia I began compiling road trips to nearby parks, eager to see more of these amazing places I’d only experienced secondhand through glowing and breathless accounts and ethereal footage.

These parks to me represent not just the icons of America, but a gateway to appreciating the greater whole. They are a guiding hand into enjoying and understanding the larger world around us, its past and its future, and by proxy our own. And for those of us with the curiosity and enthusiasm, they represent the opportunity to rejoice in the best of what the natural world has to offer.

“There is a delight in the hardy life of the open. There are no words that can tell the hidden spirit of the wilderness that can reveal its mystery, its melancholy and its charm. The nation behaves well if it treats the natural resources as assets which it must turn over to the next generation increased and not impaired in value. Conservation means development as much as it does protection.”

– Theodore Roosevelt

 

In response to a recent request by someone in the US self-admittedly ignorant to anything and everything about Australia, I gave them this quick synopsis that on review I thought should save for future use.

5-year veteran expat in Sydney here. Permit me to share some insights:

– The flight to Sydney is unspeakably long. It really doesn’t matter where you’re coming from, it will still take you a significant part of your life to get here that you will never get back. If at all possible, do not fly a US-based airline, as they are still unclear on the meaning of “food” and the bastards have started charging for booze in coach on international flights. If you’re going to be uncomfortable for 14 hours, you may as well be drunk or unconscious.

– Speaking of drinking, there is a remarkably good variety of beer and wine in Australia. Under no circumstances ask for a Fosters, the idea of advertising Fosters overseas when it’s not actually sold in Australia is one of the best long cons this country has devised. VB and Tooheys are the Coors and Budweiser of Australia, XXXX is the Hamms of Brisbane. “Goon” is cheap wine in a box and will destroy you in the most entertaining way possible, as well as garner you many friends.

– Through a freak of physics, sunshine in Australia is the equivalent of a sadistic 5-year-old holding a magnifying glass over you. Do not wear anything less than SPF 30 on a sunny day. If you are prone to sunburn, do not wear flammable synthetic clothing.

– Swear words are used more often than commas. Use them liberally and people will appreciate you as one of their own.

– If you’re going to tour different cities, here’s a quick breakdown:
Sydney: The Australian version of LA; it’s where all the famous people and places are, and everyone there knows it. Everything about the place is annoyingly pretty.
Melbourne: Australia’s San Francisco, complete with aggressively schizophrenic weather and even more volatile trendiness. The food and coffee is fantastic; breakfast is a competitive sport.
Brisbane: Beach city without a beach. Hard to be uptight when it’s always shorts weather. A little ways down the coast is the Gold Coast, which is where everyone goes for bachelor parties and regret.
Adelaide: You’re getting off the beaten path as tourist destinations go. The pace is slower, the wine is cheaper, and the shops close earlier.
Perth: New money territory with all the mining companies calling it home, so there’s plenty of friendly people out to have a good time but not quite sure how. Again, a much slower pace than the other coast.

– The danger of imminent death from everything is no joke, even some of the birds here are essentially ridiculous-looking velociraptors. However it’s impossible to live under the expectation that you could die by putting your hand in the silverware drawer, so Australians have championed the attitude of belligerent nonchalance. When you could die at any moment by anything from a tiny spider to a shark to standing too close to an Irishman on a sunny day, the Australians have decided to say, “Fuck it, good day for a beer.”

Enjoy your stay.

indian introduction

Posted: April 1, 2013 in Photography, Travel
Tags: , , ,

I was not excited to go to India. While its history was as rich and interesting as any on the planet, what was left today felt almost burned away by the burden of overpopulation, poverty, and western colonialism. My previous trips to China had been my first taste of what real class disparity looked like, and the trip to Bali just the past November had left a bad taste in my mouth for hot, overcrowded places with more regard for fighting to the top of the heap than for the drifts of trash strewn everywhere. India I had always felt would be little different.

And I wasn’t necessarily wrong. Pune itself was in such a state of construction upheaval that it looked like a bombed-out war zone. Even the airport was scattered with broken concrete and rebar. Movement, either on foot or by car, was a perpetual game of chess in which far too many pieces had been placed on the board. And stray, mangy dogs wandered through the corrugated iron shanty towns that were wedged into free spaces, digging through the drifts of trash that collected in every corner or patch of untrod ground. But there was a difference in India. There was a dignity to how people carried themselves.

This photo was taken on the Sunday we struck out of the city for some sightseeing, for a place I had found just by link-hopping on the internet while trying to find points of interest: Karla Caves. Made over 2000 years ago, it was Indian Buddhist temple carved straight into the rock that has since been taken over for normal Hindi religious service, as many places are due to the overwhelming demand placed by having millions of gods to appease. A short hike from the overcrowded parking lot that doubled as a weekend picnic spot took my co-worker-in-tow and I through a meandering path up the hillside, lined with stalls selling everything a weekend worshiper might need, from offerings to freshly made snacks. We were also the only white people in sight. Apart from the now familiar steady stream of stares and one half-hearted attempt at selling guide service, nothing was pushed on us. My usual guard against hawkers catching a whiff of tourist blood dropped as I realized the feeding frenzy was not coming.

As we reached the top, the heavy summer noon sun, normally flattening and oppressive, was caught and reflected by the people themselves into a whirl of color. Of the many things that had continued to snag my attention in India was the ornate and colorful style still commonly worn by women on a day-to-day basis, and this mixed with the dress whites on the men and the many colorful offerings made the crowd slowly whirl and shift like a kaleidoscope. This press of people filing into an enormous line that never seemed to grow any shorter seemed unhurried and unconcerned, even with various animals, live or dead, in tow. A table had been set up below the archway of ceremonial bells, and money and items exchanged hands between the small throng around it, the man in the white tank top manning it, and the people passing behind the iron gate, perhaps a ceremonial short cut for those who were either more pragmatic, a bit less patient, or perhaps had a bit more money to burn on the day’s worship. All this was punctuated by a band that would sporadically strike up for sometimes 15 minutes or more, playing an overwhelming but not unpleasant accompaniment of drums and horns. As we paused briefly in the shade, a man wearing a broad grin saw us and paused with his large bag of red powder to smudg a ‘tikka’ on each of our foreheads before scooping his puppy back up, which had a red smudge of its own, and carrying leisurely on is his way.

Over the course of the day, and in fact the entire two weeks, people were at most curious and shyly friendly, but never pushy unless you were on good terms with them. There was always a sense of intent and intelligence, rather than raw hungry opportunity. This was a culture still very sure of itself, unshaken by change or adversity. Despite all these trappings that I had dreaded, the foundation I appreciated was still there.

the thatched villa

Posted: November 14, 2012 in Travel
Tags: , , ,

Bali Masari statue

As is the case in any airport outside the first world, the details of Bali spring up immediately, unfiltered by the west’s sterile machinery of commercial travel. The aging airport sags with the weight of the thick humidity, the long, unadorned hallway of arrivals funneling us into the customs hall, which only passingly serves its role of filtering and processing visitors, but more functionally introduces the throng of tourists to their first taste of the utter chaos that waits outside. A phalanx of small, official-looking men have already swooped in on the baggage carousel, looming over the lines of bags they have claimed as prospective clients and desperately trying to hustle their owners along and into an unspoken contract before reality dawns. Beyond this gauntlet of amiable vultures, the last veil is dropped and we are thrust into the seething crowd, a press of opportunistic humanity that never really relents. I begin sweating immediately in the heat, the humid air clinging to me and assailing me with the rich mixture of smells of equal parts incense, car exhaust, and decaying vegetation. We are well and truly in the belly of southeast Asia.

The island itself isn’t very big, and we don’t have far to go, but it still takes some time to work our way through the snarled traffic, even at 10 at night. Apart from some of the more remote side roads, you  never really escape the steady flow of mopeds and trucks as they intricately and with seemingly endless calm interweave together. Driving in it would be terrifying, but from the safety of the back seat, especially after the tedium of a 6-hour flight, it’s excitingly entertaining, like watching a storm battle outside your bedroom window. When we finally do pull up to the villas, another quick shot of reality is administered as the gate security guard quickly checks their own car for bombs. Many people over the next week will say Bali has moved on since the bombing 10 years ago, but with the sheer volume of security guards and safety checks I see everywhere, I have to wonder if they just don’t remember what it was actually like before, just like most people in the US barely remember that back then, people could actually greet us as we walked off the plane. But from here, it’s another world completely.

Our first villa at Bali Masari is only one of twelve, and the following morning we find ourselves wondering if we’re the only guests. The restaurant, the pool, the lobby, the spa, everywhere is empty of anyone other than staff. It’s suddenly like we’ve rented the cheapest private luxury complex on the planet, pre-staffed wth the most gentle, friendly people you can imagine. Our own villa, like the others, is perched on the slope of a river valley overlooking fields and farms and comes complete with its own small pool, but we instead take immediate ownership of the larger pool above us and start to seriously be on vacation.

Of course, we are not the only guests during our 5-day stay, but for all the appearances the other guests make, we may as well be. Typically we find ourselves eating our meals alone in an empty restaurant or by an empty pool, and despite being told to book massages a day in advance, we get them on a whim, which allows Liesel to indulge in her massage addiction and me to get more massages in one week than I’ve had in the past 34 years. This is what being ridiculously rich must feel like. Our desire to sight-see (“jalan jalan” as it’s called locally) or go on adventures wanes frequently and quickly, as much due to the heat as the ready availability of the pool to escape it. Nonetheless we still manage a day trip to Ubud, the “cultural center of Bali” as the brochures tout it to shop for handmade silver and visit various temples, both with and without monkeys. In the process we take on staff a good-natured driver named Regen to get us around, who proves handy at getting us anything we can think of, from a traditional Kechak dance performance to a variety of places for dinner depending on our whim.

By chance we had landed about as far from the tendrils of US influence as possible in time for the US presidential election.

Bali Masari statue

the golden path

Posted: April 30, 2012 in Travel

Something about traveling to the edge of the earth makes miserable weather forgivable. Exciting, even. Wandering the streets of Reykjavik in a steady drizzle, shopping for a wool sweater to hold back the cold, and sagging into a chair in the warm hostel / pub trying to catch a glimpse of glaciated mountains through the persistent clouds was somehow blissful. Like I was braving the “real Iceland”, whatever that was. I was being intrepid, and misery has no place in the mind of the intrepid.

Of course with the first hint of good weather, this kind of romantic nonsense was out the window and I had picked up a rental car to do some exploring. A quick call to Gaui, my new local friend, and I had a co-pilot as he agreed to come along for the tour if I’d give him a lift to his family’s place in the Westman Islands, some two hours and a ferry ride from Reykjavik. Perfect.

Our trip took the meandering path along what’s called The Golden Circle, a series of roads that pass by the sightseeing highlights of the area including the sight of the first parliament of Iceland, the origin of the term “geyser”, and a substantial waterfall named Gulfoss. All this was scattered across a landscape that boggled the imagination and defied speed limits. At times it felt like we had gone back in time before even bushes had sorted themselves out, and all that really broke the monotony of the horizon was mountains in their awkward teenage phase, suddenly far too big to know what to do with themselves and still not quite smoothed over from the eruption of adolescence. For people like myself who always wonder what’s over the next rise, it was a landscape of both satisfaction and frustration, knowing you have a pretty good handle on what’s around you for miles in all directions, but that you’d need weeks to actually see what comes next.

After our sightseeing tour, Gaui and I made a quick stop for a nap on a sun-soaked grassy hillside to let the day catch up to us before we made the final run to the ferry, a fairly straightforward setup taking people and vehicles alike from a building in the middle of absolute nowhere to an island slightly removed from nowhere. It was a social claustrophobic’s dream. The ferry ride itself was uneventful on calm seas, though I’ve never been so caught off guard by a room packed with people watching reruns of How I Met Your Mother. Luckily I tore myself away from Neil Patrick Harris’s antics in time to catch the ferry passing into a harbor that seemed pulled straight out of a story of a lost civilization, cutting into nearly the center of the island through sheer cliffs.

draumur að veruleika

Posted: April 28, 2012 in Travel
Tags: , , ,

My life has been punctuated by volcanoes, so it was only natural that I would have to come to Iceland. From the lava fields of the eastern Cascades to the ever-growing coastline of Kilauea, I have until recently lived my life on the freshest skin of the earth, and Iceland struck me as a patch of home I had not yet seen. Every so often I would come across a photo of stark, undulating landscapes of stunted grass and wildflowers filled with sturdy galloping horses, or a fiery volcano spewing arcs of lava into a night sky streaked with green ribbons of aurora, and I would find, in the words of John Muir, “The mountains are calling, and I must go.”

Flying into Keflavik, Reykjavik’s international airport perched at the edge of a sprawling western peninsula some 40 minutes from town, it felt like I had somehow found myself over the coast of Hawaii. The same barren brown and black shores, punctuated by streaks of black flows, were uninterrupted by so much as a single building. The illusion of course was suddenly broken the moment patches of snow fields appeared, and even more as I stepped out of the airport to a sharp, cold wind instead of the weight of tropical humidity. Still, the tinge of familiarity made me giddy, adding to the excitement of my own miniature moon landing.

As seems to happen when you’re traveling with only the expectation of new things and people, I found myself falling in with my neighbor on the plane, a young guy returning from a 9 month stint as a fitness instructor on a cruise ship around south and central America. He gave me recommendations on where to go around Reykjavik, and after finding my hostel was a matter of blocks from his home, offered me a lift with his cousin who was waiting as we passed through the almost non-existent customs check. I sat quietly over the trip as they bantered in Icelandic, enjoying just being surrounded by so much that was new to me. After exchanging info with the possibility of meeting up again later, they dropped me in front of the nondescript door of my hostel and left me to start my wandering in the land of fire and ice.

On first impression, the city itself struck me as being as sturdy as its inhabitants. The majority of buildings around Reykjavik are simple and boxy, with little flair but clearly made to keep as much comfort as possible within. The only exception is a few newer structures built in the heart of the city, made with an amount of glass that makes them look like newly-unwrapped designer stereos. The people themselves go about their lives with little flair but an air of general content, and in many cases infuriatingly casual attractiveness. As a city, Reykjavik does not take itself very seriously, something I can’t help but find endearing.

ramble on

Posted: November 23, 2011 in Personal, Travel
Tags: , , ,

The travel bug is biting hard, and is leaving a distinctly Europe-shaped mark. The universe in general seems to be conspiring to remind me that it has now been over two years since I was there, with friends left and right planning trips, and even an old friend from Germany showing up out of nowhere after 12 years and asking when I’ll be coming to visit in Stuttgart. Another Europe trip is definitely a ways off, but I think making it happen sometime next September may be in order, both to revisit some favorites and catch up with all the people I missed last time. Hell, I might even make good on my threat to go see Iceland.

Meantime, recently I’ve felt particularly uncertain about whether I’m doing much with myself, whether I’m really challenging myself when I’m spending most of my time around the city while my travel has waned to a couple trips to well-known destinations. Then it occurred to me that I’m doing one of the most challenging things I can: for once I’m properly trying to make the most of living in Sydney. I can live anywhere and leave it to find something new; putting this town through its paces while I’m here has been long overdue and now I’m finally putting some real effort into it.