Monday, December 29

Day 123-Chiang Rai


Staying out for a long while, one can lose sense of time, what day it is, or in this climate, even what month it is. I have been dramatically reminded, however, that it is News Years week, and all of Thailand is on the move. Hordes of Thai, particularly the young, are explosively evacuating the big cities, headed for their rural homes, only to migrate en masse back to Bangkok at the end of this week. The result has been a series of disappointments at the bus station, where I am told that all buses are full, and must wait 4 or 5 hours until a seats can be found. Not so bad, but the bus station is often 4 or 5 kilometers from the city center and is hardly a fun place to while away the morning.

Unpredictable availability notwithstanding, the buses have been reasonable comfortable, on time, and notably... cheap! I have traveled since Bangkok, 1000 kilometers, for less than fifteen dollars, and I have arrived (with minutes to spare, as nearly all accomodations were taken) in this positively jewel of a city. Walking the streets as the daylight faded, I happened upon Wat Phra Kaew, an impressive complex of temples where the infamous Emerald Bhudda once resided, saffron clad monks gathering for the evening round of sonorous chants. Down the lane the night market was getting underway, lined with long rows of colorful vegetables and vendors of aromatic street food. A few blocks beyond, the many massage parlors are found, some offering "porn massage", perhaps that explains why every foriegn male seems to be in the company of some local lady. I, however, am too busy for such shenanigans, as I frantically concoct schemes to continue north tomorrow, across the Mekong River, where Laos awaits.

It is nearly month's end, and here are the stats for this, the southern portion of my journey to Southeast Asia:

Distance traveled: 4390 miles Degrees of latitude: 25
Days spent: 28 Countries visited: 4
UNESCO sites: 4 Other cool places: 12
Dollars per day: 61 - still on budget!

Thursday, December 25

Day 119-Ayuthaya


In order to arrive at here, the World Heritage City of Siam, I have spent some part of each of the last three days on the train. This is the ancient capital of the emerging Thai nation, 700 years ago it was a vast complex of Khmer style temples, courtyards and palaces. The journey of 1700 kilometers began inauspiciously, with the breakdown of the arriving engine while still in Malaysia. We were ferried into Thailand by minibus, in time to intersect with the northbound train, though many opted to complete the journey by bus, a quicker but awake-all-night option. I prefer to stick with the plan, and enjoyed greatly the slow ride through the night.

Arising early, I was greeted by the tropical landscape of the Isthmus of Kra, a lowland of palm trees and rice paddies, sparsely populated but rich with bird life. Huge flocks of black faced ibis wheeled and collided above the fields in various stages of flooding, where many avocet, herons and egrets were searching for their breakfast. Though I stopped over in Bangkok, embarking again in the morning saw a continuation of the wetlands, vast marshes of cattail and rush, the palms now given way to scraggly deciduous bushes, looking forlorn and gray for their seasonal loss of leaves.

Forlorn is perhaps just my own projection, for last night, Christmas Eve, was for me the most difficult of this trip. As mentioned in the previous post, I have been succombing to a treacherous foe of this single traveler-jealosy. As I spy other travelers, I am quick to compare and compete, sizing them up in my mind, finding faults and at times seething in envy that I do not have some young devoted chick tagging along as so many of them do. I don't expect anyone to understand this, I barely do myself, and I am left to find solace in the words of the Tao de Ching, an appropriate study as I make my way north to China. It instructs that I am not merely a separate part of the world I am viewing, in conflict and contention, rather that every living being is just another face, another expression, of the great Unknown, the Tao. Contemplating this, I can release that persistent nagging self-awareness, and can instead pass the day gliding with the ibis over the green fields, complete in simplicity and abundance.

Monday, December 22

Day 116-Georgetown


My trip might easily have been cut short this week, though today I am comfortably stationed in yet another World Heritage city. This colorful and vibrant port town, known as Pinang to the locals, affords me my last chance to enjoy the tri-cultural foods, sites, and personalities that make this place special. Tomorrow I will board an overnight train that will take me 1500 km to Thailand's capital city. But to elaborate on the trails and trials of this week.

Coming from the big city hustle of KL, I was ready for some time spent in nature. Situated between the two coast of peninsular Malaysia, lie the Cameron Highlands, a vast stretch of mountainous jungle, long ago cleared to create the fertile farmlands that provide the fruits, vegetables, and flowers for the people of this nation. It's commercial and tourist center is Tanah Rata, and it is there I made arrangements to take a tour of the local environs. We would take a drive to an aboriginal village of the Asli Orang, practice our blowpipe hunting, and then make the walk into the jungle to visit the renowned rafflesia, the worlds largest "flower".

My participation was in doubt as I boarded the van that morning, for it was packed to the gills with a honeymoon couple from Ireland, a foursome from "down under" and, my least favorite company, a gang of tourist from Holland, reeking of stale beer and cigarettes, all achatter in there unpleasant Germanic tongue. But having paid, I was determined to reap my reward. Our projected hike would be doubled in length, for the recent heavy rains had rendered the 4 wheel drive road impassable. Needless to say the track was ankle deep in mud, and steep in places, but I managed to keep up with the young and experienced Aussies. The poorly dressed and hungover Dutch team lagged behind and my misplaced sense of superiority grew by the minute.

As we neared the endpoint of the trek, in the vicinity of this elusive "flower" (actually a type of mushroom, though you would never know by looking at it), we were halted by our guide, warning us that we must cross the river on a treacherous log bridge, and to be very careful. In my enthusiasm I had been racing ahead, and as I began the traverse of the logs I noticed that traction was more than sufficient for an old hand like me, I certainly did not need to use the handrail, and virtually danced my way across. Until that last step. In a flash I was tumbling into the river a few feet below, knocking profoundly both shins, and managing to catch in both hands the broken spike of a branch that would have made quite an impression on my breastbone. I quickly regained the bridge and assured those watching that I was alright. In fact, I acquired only a golf ball bump on the shin, and a spider of equal size on my neck (quickly removed). Hopefully more lasting, is my realization of the Biblical warning that "pride goeth before the fall". The perils of travel are, for me, more often in my own mind.

Friday, December 19

Day 113-Kuala Lumpur


I think I have discovered my new favorite city!, and I am bound to use an excess of superlatives when describing KL, as she is known to the locals. It is a very walkable city, with distinct neighborhoods like Chinatown, where one finds the typical onslaught of street activity (including a most unappealing red-light alley), or the Golden Triangle, were business, fashion and entertainment each hold court. There I encountered a stretch of food stall the extent of a small university, and endless array of any imaginable fruit, vegetable or animal parts cooked and seasoned to please.
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Above the street loom characteristic landmarks, like the Menara Kuala Lumpur, the worlds 4th highest communications tower, with a viewing deck 800 ft above the clamour, and the stunningly gorgeous Petronas Towers, the world highest until 2004, but to me the most beautiful structure of the modern age. Outside of town lie some notable sights as well. I employed three different forms of public transport, monorail, lightrail, and public bus to arrive at Batu Caves, a splendid Hindu holy site, guarded over by a 130 ft golden Murgha statue (again, the worlds tallest). Endless streams of devoutees climbed the 272 steps to the cave entrance, only to be greeted by ravaging hordes of jungle monkeys. I sensed that each of us was held to varying degrees in an uneasy terror. Later I passed on the worlds largest covered aviary, instead opting to visit the soothing and colorful butterfly garden.
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These escapades were acheived not without a price however. The 90 degree day was bright under the equatorial sun, so every misstep took its toll. It took a good half hour to locate the bus stop to the caves, and I ambled an hour out of my way before finding the cool of the butterflys. One might expect to do better by asking directions, but as an example of how that can go, I had earlier asked the owner of my hostel if he could direct me to the train station. Very proudly and with enthusiasm he assured me that he could, and proceeded to explain that I simply walk out his door, turn right to the main road, and then, well, he wasn't so sure, I would have to ask someone on the street. That was good for about 50 of the 2000 meters I would need, and I am sure he noted my disgust as I plunged, trusty guidebook in hand, into the steamy morning.

Tuesday, December 16

Day 110-Melaka


If pressed to describe this day in a few words, I would enthusiastically answer "a sensory feast". Beginning with rage for having poorly chosen a greedy taxi driver to the bus stop, my senses were soon calmed by the plush and opulent seats on the bus, as large as any in business class and fully reclinable. Border clearance into Malaysia was as smooth as oriental silk, despite my customary gut butterflys. Once onto the mainland, we rocketed down the modern freeway, every surrounding unpaved surface bursting with vegetation, the landscape a splash of the many shades of green. As far as the eye could see were spread the feathery olive crowns of oil palms, the gloomy understory guarding carpets of seafoam ferns and grasses. Intermittent stands of bamboo and multi-storied jungle disrupted the plantations, and beyond lie hills of virgin rain forest.

A few hours later we arrive in Melaka, a port city on the strait separating the mainland from the island of Sumatra. As such, it was for centuries a center of trade between India and China, resulting in an extremely rich blend of pan Asian cultures. Walking the busy streets was an olfactory assault. Within a hundred feet I would pass by shops redolent of incense, machine oil, indian curries, insecticide or chinese herbs. The whole infused with a bass note of that unforgettable sour durian. I find shops brimming with multicolored saris, swimming with the scarlet and gold of Chinese temple supplies, or quietly displaying the muted tones of antique colonial age furniture and paintings. No wonder this city has recently been named a UNESCO world heritage site.

As evening fell, I joined a chatty Australian couple for a beer. Sitting at a quayside bar, enjoying the cooling ocean breeze, we listened in on conversations in Tamil, Cantonese, Hindi, Dutch, Mandarin, Malay to name the obvious (of course we could scarcely discern one from the other).
Playing on the bar radio was a suprising delightful assortment of Christmas carols in rich chorale arrangements and we laughed to imagine that neither they nor the many other patrons had ever seen, much less made, a frosty snowman! As our appetite grew, we selected from countless options a Korean restaurant, and enjoyed our meal of noodles, fermented vegetables, roasted beef, and omelettes. After, we were invited to a most unusual treat, that of soaking our weary feet in a pool of hundreds of tiny fish, which find their sustenence from nibbling and sucking every nook and cranny of our immersed appendages. A truly unique sensation to end an incredible day!

Friday, December 12

Day 106-Padangbai


Aside from the occasional solitary bushwalk, which-due to the possibility of snakes, dogs, military cordons, angry landowners, quicksand or other unseen pitfalls-would better be made in the company of a local, there has been precious little physical adventure on this trip. Nonetheless, it has been a journey of cultural discovery, and this is particularly true for my time in Bali.

I have spent the last few day traversing the countryside by taxi and minibus, touring the rather unassuming temples, gazing out across vast stretches of verdant rice paddy, or simple sitting bayside as the local seacraft go about their business. Through it all I have been privilidged to absorb a small amount of the culture of joy and gratitude that so fully pervades daily life on this island. A fine example of this are the many morning offerings made to this god or that, (remember Bali is of Hindu persuasion) so carefully and neatly constructed of folded palm leaf, fresh blossoms, bits of rice or cooked food, maybe part of a clove cigarette. They are placed with considerable style and grace in places of import, the gateway to the family compound, the hood of the car, and certainly on or about the family shrine.

It is all so neat and tidy and obviously pertinent, it leaves me to wonder if I should not begin such a practice. For all its splendor, Bali has left me feeling a bit fat and lazy, too much beer, ice cream and comfort. And so tomorrow I must pick up the pack anew and head to yet further places of cultural and physical surprise, and I am certain that I could use the help of the gods to make my path a smooth one.

Tuesday, December 9

Day 103-Ubud


It is my hope that over the weeks you have not wasted energy in envy of my sojourn, it is never as great as one might imagine-except for now! In this touristed but still sleepy town below the flanks of volcanic Mt. Agung, Bali's tallest mountain, it is said that ones expected visit will extend from days to weeks, and I quickly saw why. Imagine Boulder, Colorado in a lush and flowery tropical setting. Walking the main street one encounters, among the many local temples and shrines, galleries presenting the most stunning and artfully constructed collections of woodcarvings, fabrics, and paintings. When that has becoming overwhelming, simply step into one of the many cafes or restaurants and enjoy organic juices, vegetarian stirfrys, or American style baked goods. I honestly believe that I have been dining for the last few days at what must be the hippest restaurant on the planet, (at 3 bucks a meal) and the presence of the many world travelers I have met there supports my claim.

Evidence of the superlative talents of these island people is not restricted to the visual or culinary arts, however. Last night I witnessed a music and dance show that must rank among the most complex and delightful human expressions ever concieved. I know that I am prone to hyperbole, but how else will I convey the depth of the jaw dropping awe that I felt when that first dancer came on stage to meet her 20 piece gamelan orchestra. Amidst the synchronous clamour of hundreds of brass bells and chimes, and many drums, she proceeded to tell some ancient tale using precise postures, intricate hand gestures and the most captivating facial expressions. The costumes were equally ornate, as was the temple setting with its many carved freizes, depicting Balinese versions of Hindu dieties. I can imagine no greater spectacle, except perhaps for Monkey chant concert that will be tonight's entertainment!

Saturday, December 6

Day 100-Kuta Beach




At 5 degrees below the equator, the Indonesian island of Bali enjoys a consistent weather pattern-Hot! and humid. But it is the strong overhead sun that saps ones ambition, leaving one seeking the cool of a pool or an AC room rather than strolling the blistering streets and beaches. And so it is that I have allowed my days to be filled with lounging, reading, napping and enjoying numerous beers in various shady glens, surrounded by gardens of plumeria, hibiscus, bouganvilla and a host of other unknown flowers.

In the months past, I have barrelled across Europe at breakneck speed, spending nights in cramped dormitories, bussed to the farthest outreaches of rural Turkey, and flirted on the edges of uncertainty while arranging my own transport and accomodations in unpredictable India. In a word, I was a Traveler. Here in Bali, I must redefine myself and become what I most despise, a Tourist, if only for a while. Amidst the masses of young Aussie girls, couples on honeymoon, or sunburned strolling families, I am an anomoly. A solo traveler is cool and confidently hip, a solo tourist is...well, a bit pathetic. The charm of fine dining or a day at the spa wears thin quickly for the soloist, but there is one course of relief.

The Balinese locals are without doubt the friendliest people I have ever met. Along with the incessant "hello, how are you?", I was greeted by name no less than a half dozen times today, and I have been here less than 2 days. They do not seem overly concerned with hustling me into their shops, rather are just looking to pass some time, their smiles flowing freely and easily across their perfect teeth. And while I do hope to travel the extent of this small island over the course of the next ten days, more importantly, I wish to absorb some of that sense of self contentment that I am witnessing among these people. Despite the plethora of exotic handicrafts to be purchased here, that would be the best possible souvenir.

Wednesday, December 3

Day 97-Singapore


Coming from the crazy din of the outskirts of Delhi, dry, dusty, teeming with traffic, it feels as if I have been transported across the universe. Arriving at the Changi airport I sensed immediately that this place could not be more different. Customs and Immigration took all of 3 minutes, the shuttle bus was prompt and inexpensive, the streets spotlessly clean with well mannered traffic, placidly weaving its way through green gardens of lush tropical plants tucked into every corner not occupied by some ultra-modern high rise. Arriving at my hotel, I immediately hit the streets, wandering across block after block of foodstalls packed with people enjoying the smell of frying meat and garlic, myself too timid to sample the common fare. As I penetrated deeper into the center, I passed by enormous commercial towers, each filled with outlet shops selling electronic goods, toilet fixtures, and whatever else one might need. Seems that in Singapore all one might do here is shop and eat!

I have come to this island nation unexpectedly due to the political meltdown taking place in Bangkok, which was the intended hub for my travels in Southeast Asia. My last several days have been spent online researching flights to and visa requirements for various countries in the region, and after much scrambling I think I have come up with a plan for the next seven weeks, possibly better than the original. My crowning achievement of late was the acquistion of a visa to Vietnam, bypassing travel agents and going straight to the embassy. For all my efforts, after taxi fares and fees, I think I saved about 20 bucks!

Business completed, I treated myself today to a visit to the Jurong Bird Park, an outdoor collection of 8500 birds of more than 600 species. Amidst the tropical foliage, along streams and around ponds, I was delighted to visit up close and personal with birds from all over the world, from the goofy barn owl and ridiculous ostrich, to the splendid scarlet ibis and pink flamigo. I sat scolded among flocks of parrots and parakeets, lories and lorikeets. Spoonbills, pelicans, hornbills and toucans all stretched their necks to get a piece of me. Exhausted from the long walk, the heat and the humidity, I jumped the metro back into the city, finding a different kind of peace in that oh so available Tiger beer.

Sunday, November 30

Day 94-Delhi

Although there are many more places in northern India I would like to have seen, I am glad I spend my final few days back in Delhi. Tooling around the wide tree-lined avenues, visiting the famous sites, I discovered a much cleaner, more modern city than I had expected. And so it is with a much better sense of how to manage this city that I offer this recap of my November.

Miles traveled: 4050 By Air: 2460
Days in India: 25 Cost per day: $66
(a ridiculous amount but I spent $504 on flights alone)
UNESCO sites visited: 8 Other cool sites: 12
Loose craps created: 0 Loose craps stepped in: 2

In that vein, a further note on health and crime:
I am happy to have enjoyed perfect intestinal health while in India, having adhered to a strict policy of drinking only from sealed bottles and using Grapefruit Seed Extract religiously every morning. I did suffer a very brief head cold upon landing in Delhi, but compared to the deep bronchial coughs I heard emanating from many a traveler, I consider myself very lucky indeed.
I suffered no threat of harm or robbery, nor did I ever feel cheated or swindled, though I did have to gently and firmly stand my ground a few times to enforce an agreed price. I even managed to retrieve a lost item by offering a small bribe, or baksheesh as it is known here. I certainly had no fear of being victim of violence, though I did stand in constant apprehension of having my freedom of travel restricted due to breakdown, labor strikes, or heightened security.

As I leave this place I am deeply confused about the future of India, posed as it is to become a superpower by the year 2025. I cannot help but wonder how a people who I found to be very easily distracted, burdened by a seemingly obsolete religion, and buried in oceans of crap and plastic can move fully into the modern world. On the other hand, the degree to which the streaming throngs of traffic are able to selflessly cooperate suggest a very unified collective mind, and I have never seen more beautiful smiles than those radiating from a family of sisters, dirt smeared and homeless, finding some unfathomable joy on the side of the highway. This is truly a land of contradictions, nothing is probable here, everything is possible.

Thanks to Shirley Vancouver, Cary Sacramento, and Lauren and Micheal London for sharing some time with me, and making otherwise improbable events...possible.

Thursday, November 27

Day 91-Varanasi


Straddled by the Ganges River-the Great Mother- is the world's oldest living city, Varanasi. Along the river's muddied banks are found the many ghats or stairways leading to the waters edge. Here can be found all manner of creatures-priests and pranksters, boatmen and bathers, kids and cattle, touts and tourist, dogs and the dying, goats and gods- all come to pray, hustle, play cricket, buy, sell, fly kites, scamper, gawk, daudle, do laundry, shit or simply die. Its is truly a colorfully bizarre place, and not without its amusements and frustrations. Sense of humor is a critical ingredient for visiting this most holy place of India, a sense of awe and wonderment the result.

Arriving here required quite a dose of humor as well. The overnight train from Jhansi pulled in a couple hours late, itself no problem, but it deemed to stop one kilometer short of the station, leaving us to decide one hour later that it would be worth making the walk. Find delight in the sight of five backpacking tourist trudging under a midday sun though a very busy railyard searching for the platform amoung a sea of rails, the smell of diesel and urine our welcome. Suceeding this, we were met by the crush of eager drivers, not all of which were in good spirits. Thinking we had secured our car, we had to argue details of destination for some time, endure some very real betel-fueled rage, threaten to walk, get out with our gear three times before we could get our driver to budge. I think we were quite proud to have saved 50 cents, all the while insisting that "its the principle not the money".

In that regard one is constantly required to review and assess ones principles. The pressure to buy and give is absolutely relentless, and one developes a strategy to repel the onslaught or is comsumed alive. One blinds ones eyes to the misery and hardens ones heart, to the point where I have ignored the pleas of women young and old, holding their pathetic, sure to be dead within a week, easily replaced babies, only to enjoy an ice cream ten minutes later. How can I justify this cruelty, how can I explain this to myself. It is a paradox to be daily faced, each morning renewing the commitment to retain sense of humor and respect, to exercise compassion as best as I can understand it. Nothing I have seen before could have prepared me for what I would witness in this country, I will be left knowing more about the world but perhaps less about myself than when I arrived.

Sunday, November 23

Day 87-Jhansi


What is most notable about travel in India, is the uncertainty one faces as one enters the carnival that is the street. Will one find a scrupulous driver, will he take you where you think you told him to go, will he please god not hit some Brahma bull or beggar woman sitting stubbornly in the street, will his vehicle not rattle apart beneath you anxious ass?

Testing my own destiny, I traveled to Jhansi, a non-touristed transportation hub, necessary in order to connect to my next destination. This town is not listed in my guidebook, and is therefore off the map, anxiety level 1. Upon arriving, I am informed by the throng of hungry drivers that festival is taking place and there will be no rooms, I must move on, anxiety level 2.
Nonetheless I make my way to center and begin the search for a room, and after 3 fruitless attempts I am truly sweating bullets. My fourth proved available and I settled in for the afternoon, only to be roused from my nap by the most godawfully loud contraption I have ever heard, a megaphone multiplex blasting Bach fugues pecked out on some cheap Casio keyboard. Seems a wedding party had arrived, and I would spent the night haunted by a most celebratory cacaphony.

Not dissuaded, today I made the short journey through the scrubby plains, stands of sycamore and locust broken by random intrusions of granite blocks and boulder fields, to the serene and magical village of Orchha. There I was greated by a colorful panapoly of odd characters, dressed in robes of saffron, flowing suits of embroidered beige silk, or nearly naked and smeared with ashes. I eschewed the crowds however and headed for the abandoned temples scattered about the countryside. There I would find the peace and quiet I have for so long needed, amoung the soaring spires dripping with the hives of wild bees (African killers?), hidden coves concealing screeching parakeets, their long abandoned buttresses overgrown with shrubs and weeds (snakes about?). As I traversed their flanks, a small group of dogs deemed to follow (rabid?) and turning a corner, a very large badass male langor monkey cussed me out for my intrusion. It seems the anxiety of the street had not altogether left me, still I was feeling apprehensive, after all, those vultures with their 8-foot wingspans were wheeling overhead for some reason!

Thursday, November 20

Day 84-Agra


At times when I visit these spectacular World Heritage Sites, often built centuries ago, I wonder what achievements of modern man justify our existence into these latter days. I have never felt this so strongly as when I came to see the glorious monuments constructed here in Agra. The most famous building in the world is located here, the lustrous and enchanting Taj Mahal, we know it as the supreme monument to love. Constructed in the mid 17th century as a tomb for his beloved wife by Shah Jahan, it is a marvel of art and engineering. As the pinnacle of Mughal architecture, it employs vast quantities of carved and filigreed marble, inlay of semiprecious gems, and improbable curved surfaces arranged in such a way and place to create ever shifting visual illusions. Anyone who attempts to decribe this place in words falls far short.

Equally impressive is the Agra Fort, some centuries older and serving a most practical purpose as garrison and palace, this sprawling complex is constructed from gleaming white marble and deep maroon sandstone. The intricate carving to be seen on virtually every exposed surface leaves one to wonder if the skills needed to create such a work even exist today. Elements of Arab design are predominant, as this city was once the capital of an empire founded by invaders from the West (Iran). Again one is left without words to decribe such a masterpiece, and the multitude of photos one is compelled to shoot does little to convey the majestic scope of this place. This is why we must each come to visits these sites in person!

I came to Agra from Aurangabad by overnight train, my first in India. As I first boarded the train I was pleasantly surprised at the overall appearance of things, it seemed that this was going to be a comfortable trip indeed, and so it was. Within an hour of departure, I found myself reclined in my berth, listening to pop hits of the 70's on my mp3 player. As I dozed lightly, my mind was flooded with images of myself as an 8-year old boy, fishing for fantasies in my cardboard box boat while the day passed to dusk, hunting for mice in the meadows of mid-March. I wondered what track was laid in those days that would 40 years later lead me to this moment, half way around the world, barrelling through the smoky plains of this ancient land with a trainload of faces that are distinctly different than my own. I awoke to find a couple of cockroaches making explorations of their own amoung the unknown terrain of my trousers....Ah..Incredible India!

Monday, November 17

Day 81-Aurangabad


One thousand kilometers south of the Himalayan foothills, nestled amoung the plateau that break above the dry grassy plains, are the UNESCO sites of Ajanta and Ellora. At each of these sites are found an assorment of carved rock temples, caves and monasteries. Each is spectacular in its own right, and has been well worth the time, effort, and expense to make the visit.

By tourist (ie, middle class Indians on holiday) bus, I traveled the 100 km north to visit the Ajanta complex. Over the course of 2 hours we made our way through the scrubby plains, now in the dry season, the fields of sorghum harvested and stacked in haphazard piles, the road lined with eucalyptus and acacia trees. We would pass through numerous small villages, where, despite the enormous populations of Indias cities, 80% of her people are to be found, huddled in their thatched reed one room houses, men plowing their small plots by aid of a single ox, women cooking in their single pot over a blazing pile of sticks, children playing without a single stitch of clothes on, together living on less than a single dollar per day.

This forgotten as we entered the complex of 30 or so caves, carved into an escarpment of basalt some 2km long, each completed over the ages spanning from 2nd century BCE to 800 AD. These are Buddhist structures and amidst the intricate carved geometry are found numerous detailed wall paintings, now faded, but still capable of relating the story of the Buddha, Asia's most significant historical figure. In various arched roof temple caves, we would encounter a small group of Thai monks, or Korean visitors, making chants to their long passed spiritual leader.

Visiting Ellora caves the next day, we were treated to yet even more dramatic artistic achievements. Here the caves were produced within the 500 year period of 600 AD to 1000 AD and represent efforts by three different religious sects, Hindu, Buddhist and Jain. The most spectular, Kailasa Palace, was carved in one piece by 7000 craftsman over the course of 150 years. About the size of an average American supermarket, it is the largest single stone sculpture in the world. The intricacy of its plan and detail boggles the mind, unimaginable how the initial vision could actually be manifested a century and a half later. Weaving amound the various carved animals, obelisk and brocaded towers, we would encounter saffron clad monks and sadhus, as well as lovely Indian women in their brightly colored saris, an unsupassable visual feast!

Thursday, November 13

Day 77-Siliguri


I have always maintained that travel is harder than working, definitely true for my time here in Northeastern India. And so, I have determined that it is my job to find pearls amoung the heaps of plastic, peace within the pedestrian mayhem. India will not change what it is, so I must change my mind about what I perceive it to be.

It is in this spirit that I arose early the other morn to catch the shared jeeps to Tiger Hill. Walking the dark at deserted alleys at 4 am was spicy indeed, if only in my imagination. Surviving that and the 10 km drive, I was surprised to find not just handful of tourist, but a thousand locals gleefully, noisily awaiting the sunrise. The views of Kachendzonga were stunning in the early light and with a little help from the binoculars, I was able to discern the top few hundred meters of Mt Everest, and a couple of other high peaks. Later that day I tried to catch the jeep out of Darjeeling, but some politcal folly left the roads blocked for the day, ( a not rare occurance in these parts) and so I spent the day wandering the quiet and aged botanical gardens, amidst trees of types unknown since I could not read the labels written in Hindi.

I was sucessful the next day in getting out, but in my haste I choose to ride in the back of the jeep, not a good idea for one of my size, and spent a couple hours jostled from one Nepali lap to another. To celebrate my time in Gorkaland (Northeast India), I later hired a car to drive me across the Nepali border, just for the stamp in the passport and a beer. It was on this trip that I began to understand that I can find joy in this place, to look beyond the apparent suffering and disarray and into the hearts and faces of a people who are not bound by the quality of their material surroundings, who truly seem to be living a life of spirit. I must do my best to disregard my moments of discomfort and uncertainty, to continue to find the beauty that is waiting to be discovered.

Monday, November 10

Day 74-Darjeeling


Here in the Darjeeling, "the Queen of the Hills", I have found the peace and quiet (relatively speaking) that I so desperately needed. This lovely multi-ethnic town, folded into the hills of rhododendron, thuja, bamboo and wisteria, huddles below the massive Khangchendzonga (8598 m, worlds third highest). The locals (of numerous tribes unknown to me) have been enjoying a month-long music/dance/culture festival (just one hundred meters from my room!) Amidst such raucous humanity and natural splendor, one can only feel humbled and diminished.

And humbled I am, not just by the snow clad monstrosity looming 20000 ft above me, but by all that unfolds around me. I fancied myself quite a world traveler, but here I carry myself somewhat like a kicked puppy, seeking to protect myself from the dusty clamour, shying away from everything around me as if it were a potential poison invasion, while witnessing other travelers seemingly quite comfortable as they sample stir fried street fare, negotiate the crowds at the railway station, or barter for shawls with the local ladies. Even more humbling is the fact that I will not be able to gaze upon the lovely Himalaya from a closer distance. I had anticipated doing a 3 day trek along a nearby ridge, bringing me to 17000 feet and within view of the mighty Mt Everest (29028 ft, world's tallest). Alas, the chronic knee injury I have been nursing for some years leaves me hobbled this week, unable to walk more than a mile or so. I once did an anagram of my full name and came up with "knee gone level thee", meaningless at the time, but today I realize, my knees are shot, and I have been brought to the fitness level of many a flatlander, and must be content to gaze upon the heights from afar.

A peculiar feature of this area is it's rail service, built in the 1880's on 2ft wide tracks, this decrepit train steams its way up steep grades through a series of loops and switchbacks. It being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, I was compelled to take the 2 hour Joy Ride. Where they came up with the name I can not guess. It it exceedingly slow, loud as hell, dirty, dusty business. At one point I had to change seats as I noticed it was spitting coal dust all over my freshly laundered pants! Still, as a mountain railway, it is somewhat unique in the world, and all things considered, was the high point of my day. And despite the general tone of todays post, I am feeling quite hopeful about what other splendors I may be witnessing soon.

Friday, November 7

Day 71-New Delhi


There is one thing about myself that I am very proud of, and that is my spirit of independence. There is one thing about me that is my tragic flaw, and that is my need to be independent. My first day in Delhi was suppose to be as easy as possible, thanks to the willingness of a local resident (son of a Taos friend) to find me a comfortable hotel in a comfortable neighborhood, and to pick my up from the airport. Would I allow this to happen, of course not, it all looked so manageable from the outside.

The hotel I booked on the Internet was close to the airport, and I thought to relieve Jai of such a lenghthy effort to come and take me there. Rather, I procured a pre-paid taxi from the arrivals hall. When I first saw the age of the driver, I had my first moment of doubt. He claimed to know the location of this hotel, but it quickly proved untrue. Before I knew it we were plying the back roads of some very unappealing district, finding ourselves backing out of alleys that had been ripped open to expose the sewer trench, stopping every 200 meters to ask this person or that, always receiving a different gesture of direction. By now I had laid a couple hundred extra rupees on the guy, hoping to calm him down. We were getting closer, but finally the poor bastard just ran out of gas, so limping and looking very downtrodden, he walked me the finally half kilometer to the hotel.

I am not going to say much more about India yet, lets see how it goes when I fly up north tomorrow. But honestly, if it does not smell better, get quieter, and generally appear less like a war zone- I will be out of this country in a week!

Tuesday, November 4

Day 68-Istanbul


It ıs my last nıght ın Turkey, and I have placed myself ın Istanbul once agaın, though I am several dıstrıcts removed for the tourıst center of Sultanahmet. Here ın Aksaray, the prıces are decıdedly cheaper and I am encouraged to use Turkısh as much as I am able. Let me brıefly recap the month wıth a few numbers:
Days ın Turkey: 28 Countrıes vısıted: 2 (I must count Kurdıstan as dıstınct)
Mıles traveled: 4560 By bus: 2450 By motorcycle: 430
Cost per day: $72
Unesco Sıtes vısıted: 4 Other ımportant sıtes, parks, etc: 13

But today has not been about lookıng back. I wanted to spend the day engaged ın a specıal and popular Turkısh experıence, the ferry cruıse up the Bosporus, from Istanbul to the Black Sea. The trıp began by boardıng the tram to the cıty center, whıch at 9am rush hour was tryıng ındeed. The traın was packed solıd, no less than 50% of my body surface crushed agaınst some other unfortunate traveler. I remınded myself to stay calm, that thıs ıs all just traınıng for Indıa. The ferry was surprısıngly crowded as well, though there was ample space, and apparently ample lıfe jackets for everyone. What was really ınterestıng about thıs fast ferry rıde, asıde from the varıous hıstorıcal buıldıngs lınıng the coast on both the European and Asıan sıde, was the vast number of languages beıng spoken by the 1000 or so passengers. I cannot dıstınguısh by hearıng, but by vıewıng the guıdebooks beıng carrıed, I could count over a dozen, from Englısh to Mandarın, and everywhere ın between. Truly an ınternatıonal venture.

We stopped at a small resort vıllage for lunch, whıch I enjoyed greatly, as I had a rather extended conversatıon (ın Turkısh) wıth the 20 year old daughter of the restaurant owner. I was feelıng exceedıngly comfortable and confıdent ın what I now thınk of as my second home, but stıll found the need to relıeve myself. The fare for using the facilities beıng 50 cents, I placed 2 quarters on the table. The attendant was quıck to gıve a sharp rap on her wındow ınsıstıng that ı owed her 50 cents. I ınsısted that I had already paid her, but she just wouldn't relent, nor would I. We actually had to walk down the street to find some policeman to settle our dispute. Seems lıke he had been through thıs before, the poor woman lacked the math skılls to recognıze that 25 + 25 = 50.

Back upon the boat of Babel, I spent the afternoon dozing and casually snappıng a pıcture of the cıtyscape as ıt passed before me, the lıght gradually fadıng untıl we arrıved at the Grand Mosque, now bathed ın the golden glow of sundown. Tomorrow I shall begın to mıss thıs great 'cıty of worlds desıre.'

Saturday, November 1

Day 65-Antakya


Antalya proved to be the recreatıonal hotspot that I expected, but as my tıme ın thıs country ıs fast comıng to an end, I thought ıt vıtal that I leave the tourıst haven and head back East ınto 'real' Turkey. A short flıght and a 3-hour bus rıde has carrıed me to Antakya, ancıent Antıoch, a place geographıcally and ethnıcally belongıng to Syrıa. The foods have changed, hummus and baba ganoush can be found, more sıgns are lettered ın arabıc, and the people have a bıt of a harder edge, they do not smıle so broadly when I say I am Amerıcan.

Stıll, I know I am welcome, and after a mornıng vısıt to St Peters Cave, the very fırst 'Chrıstıan' church (read Acts 11 verse 26) I contınued my wanderıngs up the hıllsıde ınto the old and poorer neıghboorhoods. The alleys became ıncreasıng narrowed and shaded by the polychrome 3d patchworld of concrete, tımber and tın. Occasıonally, I stop to sıt on the steps, ınvısıbly blendıng ınto the Saturday scene of chıldren jumpıng and playıng, shrouded old crones seated, sharıng the news, old men lımpıng by, smokıng. It occurs to me that the tımeless can be found not only atop the grand canyons or ın the mıdst of an empty desert, but also ın the day to day lıves of a people who, generatıon after generatıon, ınhabıt one place. Thıs granddaugher laughıngly embracıng her frıend, wıll grow to become the fat lady on the stool, gossıpıng toothlessly wıth her same frıend. They are ın a sense, one and the same person...a contınuous thread of speech, habıt and worldvıew.

For 8 weeks now, I have, by accıdent or otherwıse, carrıed myself to these kınds of places, and ıt ıs here that I feel most profoundly the spırıt of dıscovery and wonder. Only ın the tourıst-packed popular destınatıons, amıdst the busloads of retıred oldsters or the cute young backpackıng couples, do I feel lonely or ısolated. As I contınue my travels, I resolve to spurn the famous sıtes, wıth theır dead and aged sculptures and temples, and rather to seek out the sublıme and sımple drama to be found carved upon the faces of the lıvıng.

Wednesday, October 29

Day 62-Olympos


Pete would be proud! Three days ago I rented a bıg Yamaha 650, loaded up all my gear and headed out on what I hope wıll be a 500 mıle tour of the Medıterranean Sea and surroundıng mountaıns. I scored thıs haggard but wıllıng nag of a machıne ın the tourısted center of Antalya, a harbor town of a nearly a mıllıon ınhabıtants, and though ıt took a good two hours, I consıder ıt a stellar acheıvement just gettıng out of the cıty. At speed, I was called upon to navıgate a traffıc lıght system I stıll don't understand, and a street plan that looked easy on paper but ın realıty was a maze of hıgh rıse apartments defınıng lanes choked wıth every type of vehıcle.

Once clear of the motorıng madness, I found myself at the base of a 100 kılometer road ınto the Beydağları Natl Park, very steep, superbly twısty, wıth pavement ıntermıttently broken and very lıttle traffıc - Paradıse! And what would heaven be wıthout the surprıse afternoon shower, of characterıstıc marıtıme ıntensıty. Travelıng wıth lıttle ın the way of raın gear, I could do naught but whıstle a happy tune and pull over at fırst opportunıty for a cup of hot apple tea. The next mornıng found me back down at sea level, the road equally beautıful and twısty. For thıs stretch however I would encounter the monster that ıs the Turkısh hıghway. Every road here seems to be a one lane road, that ıs to say, there are no markıngs and everyone uses the entıre wıdth. Thıs made for some very heads-up rıdıng and I was grateful for the powerful engıne beneath me and ıts abılıty to rocket me out of more than a few precarıous sıtuatıons. All along the way I would stop here and there to vısıt the numerous ancıent Greek and Roman ruıns to be found ın thıs regıon, of varyıng degrees of ıntrıgue and demıse.

Perhaps the most notable ıs here at Olympos, a sprawlıng collectıon of tombs, theatre, homes and markets set among the lemon groves, oleander trees and most delıghtful patches of cyclamen. Nearby I warmed my road-weary hands ın the famous Chımera, eternal flames sproutıng for the very rock ıtself. Science tells us that they are comprısed maınly of methane and oxygen, but stıll, they are truly the stuff of mythology. Thıs entıre area ıs exceedıngly pleasant and restful, attractıng famılıes and couples from around Europe, here to enjoy the sıtes, the sea, or a bıt of rock clımbıng.

Whıch brıngs me to a sad note. Today I wıll leave behınd my clımbıng gear. I have carrıed ıt far, but for lack of patıence and tryıng, have faıled to make any use of ıt. If not here ın Olympos, my next hope ıs 40 days away ın Thaıland, too long and too far. But my heart wıll always be ın the hıgh places. As I motored home along the aggressıve and hıgh speed hıghway pınched between the sea and the soarıng 1000 meter lımestone clıffs, I could not help but, when possıble, lıft my eyes skyward to the enormous polıshed slabs, the dauntıng aretes and ısolated towers that populate thıs mounntaın range west of Antalya, ımagınıng that one day I mıght return and be the fırst to place foot ın those forbıddıng places. Louıs would love ıt!

Saturday, October 25

Day 58-Antalya


What a spectacular bus rıde I enjoyed today from Konya, a ragıng lıon of a cıty-modern, ultra clean, staunchly conservatıve (ıe. no beer), to Antalya, the vacatıoners' paradıse, on the southern coast of Turkey. As the kılometers passed behınd me, the broad empty plaıns punctuated by gnomısh volcanıc fıgures transmuted to soarıng peaks of shelved, blocky lımestone; the brıghtly hued decıduous trees of wıllow, oak and poplar gave way to cedar and coarse pınes, and then fınally to cypress and palm as we dropped down to the Medıterranean. The entıre bus load of largely Turkısh travelers watched transfıxed by the dramatıc panorama passıng ın front of us.

But that ıs not what is on my mind tonıght, rather I want to tell of two of the most harrowıng hours I can ever recall. I had gone to the local ınternet salon last nıght, and thought to take a look at my blog, fıshıng for encouragıng comments. I entered, as you all do, from kenv.blogspot, and was greeted wıth thıs message, ın Turkısh and ın Englısh:
'Access to thıs sıte has been restrıcted accordıng to Court Order 7201 passed 20 Oct 2008
by the Dıyarbakir Crımınal Court of Peace'.
I cannot guess how you mıght have ınterpreted such a message, but for me, the date, the place and the word 'crımınal' all combıned to create an ınstant surge of panıc. Some authorıty somewhere had vıewed my sıte and was suffıcıently dıspleased to have ıt restrıcted. Turkey has very strong 'lese majesty' laws, meanıng one does not speak ıll of the country, the flag, the leader, etc. Perhaps I had overstepped these bounds by makıng mentıon of guns, polıce, or rebels ın my earlıer post (see Day52-Van). I could not ımagıne a way that I way goıng to escape havıng to answer to authorıtıes at some poınt, the consequences of whıch I vıewed as very dıre. I made emergency request of Shaggy Doc back home to delete the possıbly offendıng post and began to make plans to shıp off ın the mornıng dırectly to Istanbul and fınd a good Englısh speakıng lawyer.

I know thıs sounds lıke bad fıctıon but I could not see any other answer - my blog had been censored! As any attempt to sleep would surely faıl, I arose agaın to log ın and see ıf thıs could somehow just be a bad dream. Thıs tıme however I entered dırectly to the maın Blogger sıte as ıf to edıt rather than just vıew my blog. Thıs tıme I receıved a message, strıctly Turkısh, and as I scrambled through my dıctıonary to decıpher the meanıng, the dark clouds of paranoıa began to break and lıft. Wıthın mınutes I was able to learn from other ınternet sources, that Blogger ın ıts entırety had that very day been banned (as YouTube had been months earlıer) ın Turkey. It was not just my blog, but the whole sıte that had been outlawed! I cannot express the depth of my relıef, my executıon had been stayed! On the other hand, I could post no more from Turkey, and so you are readıng thıs some 10 days after the fact. A truly surprısıng development!

Thursday, October 23

Day 56-Goreme


The days have passed quickly since I left rebellious southeastern Turkey. Wanting to put in a long distance in a short time required taking a flight to the capital city of Ankara. Arriving at sundown, I was a bit concerned about how I would get to my hotel in the "seedy" Ulus district, it being 33 km from the airport! I was flush with pride and exertion when I arrived at its door two hours later purely by means of public transport, no taxis involved. Oddly, this is the kind of thing that I enjoy.

The next morning I hustled off to the Museum of Anatolian History just up the hill from the hotel, (an unforeseen benefit of overnighting in this decrepit part of the city). In it are housed artifacts from excavations all over Turkey, that range from 8000 years old Stone Age, to the relatively recent Roman Age of 2000 years ago. Wandering its collections of chipped obsidian weapons, clay goddess figures, carved basalt friezes, elaborate bronze pottery, and Roman coins and statues, I convinced myself that it must be among the great museums of the world, and was grateful for having stumbled into the opportunity.

Such a frantic pace revealed its price later that day as I arrived in the moonscape village of Goreme, after a somewhat grueling bus ride. I was feeling chilled and achey but still pushed myself to climb the overlook and enjoy a beer for sunset. By that night I was definitely bitten by some stomach bug and despite four heavy blankets, could not get warm in my carved rock room. The next 30 hours passed in various depths of fitful sleep, and now on the other side, I can say that Turkey ıs more than just a vısıon passıng before me eyes, rather, in a very real sense, Turkey is inside of me.

I am lucky that such events pass quickly with relatively little suffering, may it always be so, and today felt more or less back to normal. I took the opportunity to rent a motorcycle so as to see more of this splendid landscape. Tearing down dirt roads that gradually narrowed to double track, to single track to impassible hiking trail, I felt right at home. No doubt, this is how I would chose to spend a sunny October afternoon wherever I live! Having had such a pleasant, fun and casual day has led to me conclude that it is time to slow down the pace for a while, to linger more and hurry less. That said, I am off to new places tomorrow!

Sunday, October 19

Day 52-Van


Rest easy...not exactly. Dıd I mentıon that certaın members of the Kurdısh populatıon here are pushıng for theır ındependance ın aggressıve and rebellıous ways? About 2 hours after my last postıng, the gunfıre began. Sporadıc at fırst, ıt became more ınsıstent as the nıght grew on, and random explosıons would at tımes shake the concrete buıldıng I was stayıng ın. Across the street, the local polıce statıon (a potentıal target?) was abuzz wıth machıne gun laden offıcers scurryıng about, though the locals seems nonplussed and contınued enjoyıng theır evenıng tea and dıscussıons ın the street below. For my part, I burıed my head ın the heavy pıllows and conspıred to be on the fırst bus out ın the mornıng. Wıth good luck, thıs scene would be a thousand kılometers behınd me wıthın 48 hours.

(Day 53-Ankara)
I spoke wıth fellow travelers the next day, they had been ınformed that the shenanıgans were merely marrıage ceremony fıreworks. In vıewıng CNNTurk televısıon ın my Ankara hotel room, however, I learned there had been armed protest ın several eastern cıtıes that nıght (a handful of whıch I had vısıted the prıor week) and that one person was shot dead...ın Dağubayazıt.

Saturday, October 18

Day 51-Doğubayazıt


Tonıght I fınd my rest beneath the mıghty Ağrı Dağı. You of bıblıcal bent know ıt as Mt. Ararat, place of salvatıon to Noah and hıs kın. Thıs dusty town, less than 20 mıles from Iran, full of soldıers and shoeshıne boys, ıs as far east as I wıll go on whıle ın Turkey. Often I am greeted wıth 'welcome to Kurdıstan', comprısed of an ethıc populatıon of 40 mıllıon who lıve ın thıs area and surroundıng parts of Syrıa, Iraq, and Iran. They are eager to ınform me that they wısh to one day have a country to call theır own, as though my beıng Amerıcan mıght help thıs to occur. They are lıvıng theır sımple, pastoral lıves below thıs massıve snow clad mountaın, dırected by God's wıll, and as a vısıtor to thıs austere land, I cannot escape the feelıng that my own fate - each tıme I clımb ınto a rıckety mınıbus, walk a secluded alley, or hand my passport to some young soldıer- ıs also ın God's hands. So be ıt.

The stark and craggy landscape lends ıtself well to the sense of ısolatıon that I am feelıng. The Kurds probably do not feel the same, surrounded as they are by uncles, brothers and dıstant cousıns, strollıng arm ın arm wıth theır lıfe-long frıend. I don't belıeve I wıll ever meet a more congenıal people, who go well out of theır way say hello, or make some task easıer for me, goıng so far as to buy my soup at the local salon, not once but twıce ın the say day! It ıs I who am ımpoverıshed ın thıs land. Stıll, despıte havıng not heard my name called, or scarcely the sound of my own voıce for a few days now, I feel that Allah, and the people I encounter, are watchıng out for me, and I wıll rest easy.

Wednesday, October 15

Day 48-Diyarbakır


Thınk West Texas-ıt ıs hot, dry, flat and dusty. Wındblown patches of cotton, melons and chılıs extend as far as the eye can see. Color clad famılıes stoop ın the heat, collectıng the days harvest, later to be sold roadsıde. Now ımagıne the prıce of admıssıon to thıs glorıous sıte ıs four hours ın a cramped mınıbus, accompanıed by folks that are convınced that 85 degree temperature warrants the donnıng of tee shırt, shırt, and fleece lıned vest. They are not about to crack a wındow.

Yesterday was dramatıcally dıfferent. Wındıng our way up and through remote mountaın passes, recklessly barrelıng down the broken pavement on a course that would have been a challenge on my dual sport motorcycle, we made our way to Mt. Nemrut-Turkeys eıghth wonder of the world- a collectıon of 30 foot hıgh stone statues, the heads long ago toppled and layıng at theır feet. Behınd them looms a 50 meter hıgh cone of hand placed scree, a megalomanıacal trıbute to one mans self ımportance, hıs 2000 year old corpse presumably lıes beneath the pıle of rocks.

As anyone who has traveled alone knows, ıt ıs largely a cumbersome and generally borıng endeavor, not unlıke the lıves of many people around the world, and one can only hope for rare and unexpected moments of sublıme grace. So was I blessed, as I made my way towards the western gate of the massıve basalt walls that surround thıs ancıent cıty. The houses became more crude and dısheveled wıth each passıng step, but as ı strolled ı collected throngs of chıldren chımıng 'hello' and 'foto foto'. By the tıme I reached the gate, I was standıng amıdst a crowd of 20 or so street urchıns, theır older sısters and young mothers ın attendance. They stood ın wonderment at thıs rare sıtıng of a Westerner, and I, equally enraptured as I gazed over the mısty rıparıan gardens lınıng the mıghty Tigris Rıver. Here where cıvılızatıon began, I was beıng offered that most basıc of human gıfts, a smılıng word of welcome.

Sunday, October 12

Day 45-Amasya


Born in 63 B.C., Strabo is considered to be the worlds first geographer and though I am but one percent of the traveler he must have been, I feel honored to be standiıng in his hometown. It is a very picturesque place, the slow moving river overhung by the balconies of centuries-old wooden houses, overlooked by daunting rock-hewn tombs of Pontic kings. Thought to be 5000 years old, they now house furtive lovers seeking a hard won privacy. It is all very delightful and for the first time in many days I have arrived early enough to enjoy the sights.

Though driven here across a landscape not unlike the California coast,- richly verdant and perpetually wet- the kilometers traveled have exacted a price. Days begin at 6am and I do not reach my room until sundown at best. Buses can be crowded and slow, the conductors somewhat Fascist in their insistance that I remain in my assigned seat. Yesterday I had the great good fortune to be adopted by a toothless grandfather, who adopted and watched over me from the moment I had ticket in hand. He happily herded me to the gate, then packed himself next to me, crowding me into my corner, all the while smiling and patting my knee and rambling on about something, I could not say what. But his demeanor was friendly and I decided to just accept my place, knowing there will likely be more uncomfortable times than this as I continue East.

The land has been beautiful, sublime, and occasionally stunning, that first view as we drop out of the fog-drizzled mountains and the huge expanse of the Black Sea spreads before us, but I feel that what will set apart this portion of my journey are the chance encounters I am having with helpful strangers. Sometimes we have less than 20 words we can share, or as today, an extended conversation about world (American) affairs wıth young Ahmed, but it is the sense of belonging and that I am welcome that marks these days as special. I have seen precious few tourist since leavıng Istanbul, as I would wish. It is this state of pleasant unknowingness that leads me to admire a man such as Strabo, and to seek in some small way, to follow his footsteps.

Thursday, October 9

Day 42-Istanbul


I once answered the question "where is your second home" with "Istanbul". Today I felt as if I had spoken truly. Amidst the dramatic sights such as The Grand Palace, The Blue Mosque and The Grand Bazaar, packed with hordes of tourist from all corners of the globe (not so much Amerıca however), I spent the day as one who lived here. A profitable and necessary visit to the bank, laundry dropped off, and even a haircut marked my mornings acheıvements. In the afternoon, after a walk along the seacoast of Marmara, I trammed up a few stops away from the tourist district and enjoyed a beer and my lunch of lentil soup with bread amoung the locals. No trinkets bought, no entrance fees paid, just honest day to day livıng. For some reason that has filled me with great joy, and unexplained, it burst out of me in a trickle of tears as I sat in the square listening to the musical stylings of a blind sınger and her blind old husband playing keyboard (one handed while he smoked and drank tea!). They were watched over and managed by an albino woman who sat patiently in the van as they earned coins from the crowd. This was my sublime moment for the day, marveling at the ingenuity and tenacity of my fellow humans. I shall need some of the same as I leave the city and make my way to more remote country villages. My hope lies in speedy use of my phrasebook and the good humor of those around me.

Tuesday, October 7

Day 40-Bucharest


Back to Bucharest and what a big day it was! Today marks the end of my travels in Eastern Europe. I have spent only a short time in this area, but it feels to me that I have already seen so much. Let me share a few statistics regarding this last month:

Days traveled:27 Cost per day:$82
Miles traveled:4230 By train:3860
Countries visited: 10
UNESCO World Heritage sites:9 National Parks, etc:5
Country with cutest girls:Romania Girls kissed:0
Sleeps shared with strangers:9 Restaurant meals:<10
Hours spent waiting:countless Hours spent walking:countless

Pretty good trip so far. What was particular about this portion of my journey was, of course, the number of countries and currencies I would see in such a short time, but also that I would cover the great majority of distance by train. And for this I am grateful. The trains here, of all types and conditions, have taken me through an unbroken countryside only seen by rail. The vast fields of corn and flax, trackside stands of elderberry, rosehip, and wild plum, the rolling hills covered with stands of beech, chestnut, ash and fir, all in their autumnal glory, the remote limestone and sandstone gorges cut by rushing rivers, they all blend into one long scene of "quıet" delight. Those livıng near the tracks lead simple lives and I was lucky to witness whole families harvesting huge fields of potatoes and corn, with nothing but handtools and horse drawn wagon. Old weathered faces and dirty Gypsy kids would occasionally look up to watch me pass. I was oddly comforted by these scenes.

Also of great comfort and delight was an impromptu visit by Shaggy Doc, who, at no little expense, flew out to Bucharest to wish me bon voyage for the next leg of my trip. We shared a few beers and a few tales and reconfirmed that, by our shared love of the greater world, we are truly kin.

Farewell then to Europe, tomorrow I will arrive in Istanbul, "City of World's Desire", and there I hope to find yet another kind of magıc.

Sunday, October 5

Day 38-Sighisoara


I awake this morning in a quiet Transylvanian village, birthplace of Vlad Tepes - we know him as Count Dracula. It is not dark and gloomy, but it is gray and rainy. The only sign of life is the intermittent peal of church bells, chiming from every quarter. Today I will nap away the day, for I am finding that I arrive to important places, not by bus or train, rather I am driven there in my dreams.

Saturday, October 4

Day 37-Bucharest


Crossing the Danube River out of Bulgaria was more exhilarating than I would have expected. The setting sun was burning a blood red hole in the haze over the fertile southern plains of Romania. Peasants (literally) were toiling their final hours in the fields that surrounded their humble homes, making hay (literally) while the sun still shines. It was all so appropriately romantic.

Arriving in Bucharest in the dark would not have been my first choice, but after an hour long scramble I was relieved to have arrived at my hostel for the night. Short lived relief. The room ,not much larger than your bedroom, contained 12 beds, the floors strewn with the belongings of its tenants. I attempted to make an early night of it, but one girl decided to burn the lights brightly as she worked some art project. Around 2 in the am, a couple of German fatheads arrived, speaking in brusque tones as if this were their private room. The choir of snorers was in full song, and the creaky wooden beds would rattle and shake with every toss and turn, and for my part, I was getting up every hour or so, in disgust, or for having drank a liter of beer before bed.

There seemed little hope of sleeping this night, but armed with earplugs, eyeshades, tissue up my runny nose and a wet cloth over my mouth (head cold contracted in Bulgaria), the gods smiled upon me and gave me a few hours of rest. As I arose at 7 to begin my day, I created maybe just a little more noise than was necessary, but this I have learned from hostel living, you look after your own needs first!

Thursday, October 2

Day 35-Veliko


Finally I feel like I am on vacation! The town of Veliko Tarnova, said to be one of Eastern Europe's most beautiful cities, has proved to be just that. The hillsides are crammed and stacked with villas, the sun drenched sidewalks crammed with stacked coeds. The leaves are turning on the beech and willow trees that line the meandering river far below a clear October sky. The ancient citadel watches over me as I wander the avenues and drink beer from cheap and excellent cafes. After weeks of cheese and bread, here in Bulgaria I can finally afford to eat out!

Getting here has required some work however. The train ride from Sarajevo to Sofia, though long ago, is not easily forgotten. Twenty four solid hours of ambling the countryside, confined to a smoke filled car, punctuated by several late night passport checks. Each time they would look me over pretty good and call in my name. Was it my face (crazed) my name (Russian?) my age (war vet) or my nationality (friend or foe), I will never know.

I had spent this time in the company of Susan from Seattle. We whiled the hours getting to know each other quite well, as only travelers will, and shared some walks and meals in Sofia. The time for our paths to diverge was fast approaching, so imagine my surprise when my early morning announcement that I would not accompany her to the train station that day (small head cold coming on) was met with a frosty "thanks for nothing" and a slammed door behind her. I will never understand women. I gotta laugh it off.
Even more so when I discovered, after a 3 hour train ride, that the delightful Bulgarian town of Plovdiv, my destination for the day, was hosting an international tech fair. Not a room to be had, so what could I do but chuckle and hustle my butt back to the train station and back to the room I had just come from!

So that is the story of how I came to be here, blissfully buzzed, ready to discover the tale, yet untold, of where I am going.

Monday, September 29

Day 31-Sofia


A series of minor losses has befallen me since I left Zagreb, oh so many (it seems) days ago. This began with an innocent misplacement of my pen, insignificant of course, but not unnoticed, and I swore I would be more vigilant as I walked among the palm, fig and lemon trees of Split, Croatia. I delighted in the great snack foods to be purchased under the ancient walls of the Diocletian Palace, a Roman bulwark here on the northern tip of the Adriatic.

I continued to Mostar, Bosnia, where I visited the Stary Most, a famous bridge across the river that separates the Christian and Muslim quarters. As I raced to catch a photo in the fading sunlight, I left my glasses among the smooth river stones. Such a small loss and easily replaced, but again I vowed to move more slowly and deliberately so as to avoid such mishaps. It was in Mostar that I met Susan, fellow "middle aged" solo (but married) traveler, coincidentally intending to travel in the same direction as myself, so we hooked up the next morning at the train station with another Swiss couple, Marko the Killer and his girl Nicole. This guy is a world class traveler, having come from the east through Turkmenistan, Kasakhstan and such exotic and difficult places. We had a nice morning train ride through the river gorge, trading tales and travel tips, until we reached our destination of Sarajevo, Bosnia.

Few of us would know the complicated history of this place, but suffice it to say it was war ravaged and bullet riddled in the conflict with Serbia in the mid 90's. As such the main attraction for visitors is to take the Tunnel Tour, a visit to the 800 meter tunnel that kept this city alive for 3 years as it was under artillery siege from all around. A visit to the old Olympic bobsled track and the high mountain trenchlines (all the while plied with tales of torture and such endured by our guide) rounded out the tour. It was after enjoying our included lunch and noontime beer that I would be called upon to pay a "war tax".

We were walking, Susan and I, to visit the old town when we were approached by a bent over, thickly shawled begger woman. Now my strategy for such characters, generally, is to completely ignore them, not even make eye contact. So as we stood waiting for the traffic to halt on this crowded corner, this woman kept pestering and pinching me, I resolutely unconcerned. She soon gave up and ambled, somewhat spritely, away. Minutes later, as I went to make a small purchase I noticed my wallet was...well, wasn't. It was not a huge loss, just the days money, maybe 70 bucks, and an hour of hustle to phone home to kill the ATM card (though replacing it will be a chore for a later day). Within a short while I had a new wallet, money, etc. and had accepted the lesson. For her however, the event had much greater meaning - for this night and many to follow, she would feast on meat and wine, regaling her admirers with tales of her prowess! Perhaps I flatter myself, I was just another dumbass victim of her ageless profession. You have to respect a job well done, no?

Wednesday, September 24

Day 26-Zagreb


It has been a fine few days in the great outdoors of Northwestern Slovenia, truly a sportsman paradise. I went off to visit a spectacular cave in the karst country, and though it took a fair effort to get there and a good price to get in, is was worth the effort to view the largest underground canyon in Europe. The next day I returned to the Julian Alps and spent the day and this morning exploring the environs. Huge limestone walls surrounded the picturesque village, and I nearly had some climbing lined up, but the persistent rains prevented the excursion. Nonetheless, a fine bike ride and hike to the famed Vintgar Gorge satisfied my urge to spend quiet time among the rivers and trees.

I cannot deny that a slow sense of longing and loneliness is creeping into my psyche, especially during the wee hours of the morning, when I awake from very deep and restful sleep only to find myself wondering where I am...and why. I have experienced this before, and expected to feel this way by now, so I will just have to keep moving, keep looking for that priceless and elusive vista lurking just around the next corner.

Saturday, September 20

Day 23-Budapest


Did you ever have one of those dreams where you need to be running to something or away from someone but you just can get off your knees, like you are crawling through tar. I saw that dreamself in the real world yesterday as I was crossing the bridge over the Danube from Buda to Pest. This man, clubfooted, with a single cane, was virtually crawling his way across this enormous and crowded steel bridge. Who can know what he was thinking, it must have taken the better part of an hour just for that part of his journey. I am remembering often to count my blessings.

There has been very little sign of human suffering here in Budapest, such an architecturally artful place, I rate it as the most liveable capital city I have ever visited. Maybe it is the turning leaves of the beech trees, already beginning to drop in the cool autumn breeze, or the slow and timeless flow of the Danube, or the young couples kissing in its bankside parks. I am feeling at home in this place and moment.

But despite my casual and comfortable wanderings, I did feel a bit pressed to escape a particular vicinity. The long lines of police vehicles I had witness screaming down the avenues earlier that morning were there collected, for what reason I do not know. Secret service men whispering into their collars, lines of riot police scanning about, sirens everywhere and choppers in the sky. Later I learned certain right wing factions had battled these police during the evening. Fortunately my healthy legs had removed me from that scene.

Thursday, September 18

Day 21-Nova Lesna


The sun finally broke out today, after 3 days of slow gray drizzle. And it did so in a most fortuitous place - I was hiking in the High Tatra mountains of Slovakia, trudging a trail though beech and fir.
As I rounded the bend I was greeting by a marvelous sight of soaring stone aretes, sheer rock walls and an army of stolid gendarme. All around were an assortment of hikers, Slovaks of all sizes and ages, some walking quite slow, but some of these pudgy old bastards were keeping up! After a few miles, upon reaching the heights where the seasons first snow was blowing wildly, I decided I had had enough.

The rain and somber skies were quite appropriate however, when, the day before, I visited Aushcwitz, the site of the Nazi German atrocities. All in a a very sobering experience, only broken by the flip and silly shenanigans of various school kids gathers in the cinema hall. Once the film had played however, recounting the horrors of this place, they were notably subdued, many exited having found something had gotten in their eyes.

And so my journey continues, a tightrope dance between blue skies and gray. Every moment invites a chance to learn something new, a new word, a train schedule, a particular way something is done here. Assumptions are often misleading, and though it may be easy enough to catch a train, getting off at the right station is not always straight forward. Last night was a case in point. Exiting the train station in search of the bus station, I began a cold wait in the darkness for the bus that might take me to the remote resort village that was my destination. After a half hour I decided to suck it up and take a taxi, and good thing. Later I learned that the bus would have not arrived for 3 hours and left me an impossible 20 minute walk from my hostel. Intuition is every thing in this game.

Monday, September 15

Day 18-Katowice


Yesterday was such an awesome day! I took a bus east from Prague to Trutnov, where nearby lives a most spectacular collection of rock towers and pinnacles, a veritable city of sandstone denizens. There, along my maundering, I met a couple of Czech climbers who spoke English and it was not long before we were sharing tales of places we had all been, in particular some equally enchanting towers of sandstone near Moab, Ut. It is always special to me to feel the connection some of us make in the space-time continuum.

What has struck me about this country (Czech) is how young and beautiful the girls are, just like in the US, no? But what is different is that they seem willing to talk to me (when I approach properly) and that unlike their US counterparts, they do not act young, nor do not they all have perfectly straight teeth, which makes me wonder if, were I 20 years younger and otherwise not the person I am, I might stand a chance to know them better. Dominika, how I enjoyed looking into your eyes as we spoke, I will not soon forget you!

Now to the present. It has been raining and gray all day as I trained into Poland. I am shacked up in what certainly be some kind of flophouse near the train station, sketchy characters here and there, and what is worse it is the most I have paid for a night thus far. Security seems a hot issue around here and so I expect to sleep light tonight. Still I have great hopes for tomorrow as I continue forward.

Friday, September 12

Day 15-Prague


Last night I took the overnight train from Amsterdam to Prague. I shared the 6 bed couchette with a nice young man from Argentina, on a one month whirlwind tour by train of the European capitals. I awoke at 4am to say "adios" as he disembarked in Berlin, but he was in no mood for civilities, as his wallet had been stripped of cash in the night. I alway feel guilty when something goes wrong, did he suspect that "Kenneth did it"? I resolve to continue my vigilance, all my gear was under lock and key, but will that be enough? It is so hard to keep track of it all, the system of gear management is still evolving.

Today I treated myself to a restaurant meal of goulash and dumplings, quite good "dobry", but more important was the enthusiasm shown me by the cute and lively waitress, Toni. She reminded me that travel feeds the heart and soul - to see new things, smell and taste and hear the uncommon and unexpected - that is what life is about. She is a true fellow vagabond and to her I dedicate this posting. I expect I will be meeting many other members of my travel tribe in the days to come.

Wednesday, September 10

Day 13-Amsterdam


After a week of futher visits in the US, I am finally out of the country. It has been so good for me to feel the love and support from those who know me best. As I leave them, I wonder if they are thinking, as I am, that this could be our last goodbye. Is this not true every morning of our lives? Why should a long journey make this more obvious?

Tonight I am in Amsterdam, and I have deemed it appropriate to sample the characteristic delights of this unique city. I find a "coffee" shop and enjoy a small taste, which I must dole out sparingly as this White Widow will do me in if I am careless. I rent a bicycle and test my 2-wheeled urban saavy. I survive the traffic and confusing layout and find my way to the Van Gogh museum, but I am slow and clumsy. Later I visit the Red Light District, where I stay true (nearly) to my promise of "look but no touch". There will be no more of this type of silliness on this trip, but "when in Rome..."

Thursday, September 4

Day 7-Boulder


It has been an enjoyable and touching week along the Wasatch Front. We have begun the World Map Project at the parents home, a way to invite the family to share in the journeys of each other. My heart tells me that I will one day belong in Salt Lake, but for now I will continue East, to visit more friends and family.

Friday, August 29

Day 1-Riverdale



Yesterday I drove out of Taos, along a often traveled path. I camp in a sequestered canyon and awake to a herd of bighorn sheep grazing beneath the cliffs. I am about to visit my herd, my tribes, for the next several days.