Monday, March 30

Day 214-Taos

I walk today through the same door I exited 214 days ago. It is a good day to be here, and a good day to be. Of those 214 days, 196 were out of the country. That is 28 weeks, or about seven months, fully 3 times longer than i have ever sat on foreign soil. During those 28 weeks I spent more than one day in 26 countries, and transited through 5 others. My total miles traveled was a satisfying 61600, 35200 of which was in the air.

To achieve this end I boarded 28 distinct flights, 43 trains, and 95 buses, including several local buses, the traveler's testpiece. Additionally I climbed into 42 private cars and more than 60 taxis. I sweated out 17 boat rides, and 11 times I chose to scooter about. I "expertly" managed 8 different subway systems, and simply hoofed it for more than 500 miles.

On the average, I traveled 290 miles a day, which by most standards is an awful lot, and so, was quite weary when I laid my head on over 130 different beds in various villages, towns, and cities, more than 20 of would be considered capitals or major world cities. To traverse these miles and visit these places required the outlay of $16292 door to door, which, when added to initial cost of flights and preparation brings my total cost to almost 20000 dollars.

What justifies the expense in my mind is the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites I have compiled on this trip. These sites have been designated by the United Nations as possessing outstanding cultural or natural resources and are protected under international law. I recommend googling UNESCO World Heritage to see which of these sites you have visited. You have probably seen several among your travels.

Additionally I set foot, for short or great length, in 14 National Parks, visited 13 museums, some of which are absolutely world class. I maundered through 8 different zoos or botanical gardens, and visited scores of temples, castles and ruins. I enjoyed nature at its best among many hikes along the coast or through stark alpine meadows. I was dazzled by caves, waterfalls, canyons and lakes. I made quick work of the worlds only 3 dimensional maze, freaked out in war-worn underground tunnels and walked over a few remarkable bridges.

As I sign off today and say goodbye to you all for now, I wish that you take the time to examine the recent months of your life. I trust you will find that it was filled with similar beauty, mystery, drama, and drudgery. All opportunities to find deeper meaning in your own personal journey.

Friday, March 27

Day 211-Salt Lake City

My final flight descended through the clouds, giving me a view of the fresh snow cover over the Wasatch Mountains. Weary from little sleep and the stress of multiple long connections, I surrendered to the sensations of safety and completion. Though I am not yet in Taos, I am home, and this trip is over. Already my mind in moving on to future thrills and desires, characteristically fickle and eager for what comes next. The time to recollect grows short, the images in my mind grow ghostly, my photos seem foriegn. So before this is all a dim rememberance, let my regale you with a few observations.

We must all agree, the world is a beautiful place, and I am thankful to the powers that be for the chance to observe it in so many of its varied guises. From angry seascapes to placid fields of desert dunes, from horrific caverns filled with strange faces to the mighty, noble granite peaks of the world highest places, I have enjoyed quiet moments of solitude, pondering the vastness of the planet, and the insignificance of myself. I have come to love the trees, so proud and patient, and possessing I believe, of an essential knowledge. I have gazed into remote corners, amazed at the completeness of the world contained within a single alpine flower. I have always loved the natural world, and have not yet tired of walking against the wind, climbing to rocky places, my heart loud in my ears.

The world of man, however, leaves me perplexed and anxious. It is peopled by countless throngs- young, brown, eager and loud. Hungry. By and large I found them to be simple and honest people, carrying on in the way of those that came before. Leisurely smoking, getting fat on tasty treats, pumping out progeny, these things come naturally. And I found them to be happy, laughing easily, letting time pass comfortably surrounded by loved ones. For this I am jealous, these things I could not find for myself among the lonely miles. My innate intelligence, my fiercely developed self-reliance, my proud and protected independance are like barren shadows against the radiant joy that falls, effortless from their simple faces. It is their world. A world of sheep, a happy mindless herd, barely aware of this lone wolf.

We together, the silly and the sad, have collectively brought the planet to its knees. Everywhere, the world's single worst invention, the plastic shopping bag, clogs the waterways and dangles from every fenceling, choking beast and birds that cannot avoid the far reaching carpet of plastic negligence we have laid. Our cattle trample ever green inch, piss in every clear stream, blast more gas into the air than all our cars combined, and we continue to put living breathing trees to the ax in order to enjoy more and more of that devils flesh. We walk the city streets, blind to our brother as we chat and text and speak alto voce into these infernal devices called cell phones. Meant to better connect us, the result is the opposite. Why speak to a stranger when your friend is a push button away.

I have walked among cathedral, temples, palaces and museums. I have seen much of the great art of the world, mostly inspired by devotion to the divine. I have come to believe that art is the one godlike expression of the human condition, even more than love, which any mammal will feel. And in finding that the largest, most elaborate and difficult works of art have stood completed for centuries now, if not millenium, I am left wondering what has been the noble and divine contribution of mankind over the recent stretch of history. Technology? the mother of those conveniences such as plastic and communication, cannot, in my mind, justify our continued presence, our domination.

Just as my peregrinations left me with more places undiscovered than revealed, I am left with more questions than answers. I have caught the eyes of 10000 strangers, and looked upon a million faces, but understand little more about the human condition. I have felt the emanation of my own personal aura, glowing brightly, affording me protection from the workings of entropy and decay playing out all around me, but I know but a smattering more about my own true nature. I am left with no choice but to continue my quest for the worlds beautiful places, still hoping to find a lasting knowledge of the universe that wheels within me.

Monday, March 23

Day 207-Santiago

The primary intent of my little sojourn to Mendoza this week was to take a look at Aconcagua the highest mountain outside of Asia. It reaches an altitude of 22800 ft and is tucked rather remotely into the Andes mountains, along the border of Chile and Argentina. Naively I thought I might be able to arrange a day hike somewhere along the base of it, but as has been the case for so many of my would-be outdoor adventures, the investment of time and money was prohibitive. Already the summer season is closed and services are less frequent, options fewer. I might have spent an entire day touring by cramped minivan the surrounding high mountain sites, but I had just seen them on my way in, and would see them again upon my return to Chile. I was satisfied then, to sneak a quick photo of the summit from the bathroom window of the swaying, speeding bus.

I must hope that it is a result of the proximity of my return home rather than the distance I have travelled from it, but this week has been marked by an extreme susceptablity to frustration. Nearly ever day I am flying off the handle for reasons relatively minor, malfunctioning internet, crying kids on the bus, excessive noise from the air conditioner in an otherwise sweltering hotel room. It is not a pleasant sight, to see myself grumbling and scowling as I march down the street to some imagined place of relief. Indeed I do recover rather quickly, and within minutes can be sitting parkside, enjoying a beer (a key element) and the parade of daily life. It is this mercurial nature, I see, that leads me understand why I prefer to travel solo.

Next week I hope to make two posting, one in which I would like to rather self righteously expound upon my opinion of the world at large. It should be at once both amusing and annoying. In the second, I wish to present a smattering of statistics that I have amassed over the last seven months, a compilation of the monthly reports such as this one:

Countries: 2 Days spent: 28
Distance traveled: 5800mi $/day: 75
Unesco sites: 5 Other sites: 13
Most Southern point: Rio Gallegos, 51.5 deg south

As a post script, I must add that I am finding Santiago to be, in my opinion, another of the world´s great cities. Clean, modern, comfortable climate, and friendly folks. Now if only I could find an Indian restaurant to gain some relief from the endless stream of hamburgers, hotdogs and ice cream!

Friday, March 20

Day 204-Mendoza

Having arrived safe and sound in Santiago, which it my gateway to North America, I made all the arrangements necessary to ensure a timely departure. This left me with nearly a week to make a couple of interesting sidetrips. My first destination lay one hundred kilometers to the west, along the Pacific coast, the cultural capital of Chile, Valparaiso. This World Heritage listed city was once one of the most important ports on the continent, but having suffered numerous earthquakes, and setback by the opening of the Panama Canal a hundred years ago, it now serves mainly as a naval port, and a quaint tourist destination.

It features a sprawling amalgamation of houses that crawl up the sides of the steep hills that shelter the bay. I was initially quite excited about hiking through these barrios to the many viewpoints amidst the hovels, but after recieving warnings from nearly everyone I met, and given their striking resemblance to favelas of Rio de Janiero, I opted for a short ride up one of the hundred year old escalators, made a quick review of the many outdoor murals on display, and contented myself to spent the afternoon below on the more traveled city streets. The evening passed without incident but for the late night knock on my door by my middle-aged but kind-of-cute hostess, making sure that all was well and did I "need" anything. Facing an early bus departure, I opted for not.

The next day found me dazzled by one of the great bus rides of this entire trip, crossing the High Andes along Route 7. As we left the dry hills surrounding Santiago, making our way up a green valley irrigated by the angry and muddy Rio Blanco, we encountered yet more higher and dryer hills, dressed in tall cactus and thorny palo verde. The river changed suddenly to a milky glacier-fed blue, the slopes became rocky and forbidding, extending thousands of feet into the clear autumn sky. The river diminished to a trickle and we faced the crux of the drive, a series of 30 consecutive hairpin turns, thickly populated by huge buses, freight trucks, and the occasional overheated passenger car. Achieving the pass, we were greeted by an exceptionally long wait at the enclosed fume-filled border station, the stress of which, together with the altitude, and lack of food (generally not allowed at border crossings), left me with a draining headache.

So it was, that when I arrived in Mendoza, I had little energy to fulfill my daily chores, and allowed a travel agent at the bus station to find a room for me. I suppose I will never learn, I was gifted with the most heinously loud room overlooking the traffic choked streets of what otherwise proved to be an enjoyable city. But not until I made tracks first thing this morning and found a more suitable, more tranquil room of my own choosing. And so all is arranged- a mountain tour in the morning, one more long bus ride into Santiago, a couple of days strolling that fine city, and a final taxi ride to the airport. Soon I will be home, and can finally find some peace and quiet!

Monday, March 16

Day 200-Chillán

For the record I must state-I am not sick, I am not tired, I am not scared, I am not bored. But I am broke, so when I received word that I might have a fat project to chew on if I make it back by April 1st, there was really no debate to be had. Truth is I could have only lasted another couple of weeks, and either way, 4 weeks or 6 is no way to experience South America. Having tasted what is here, already I am forming plans for a 4 to 6 month visit in the hopefully not too distant future. I will need to rebuild the travel coffers and work on my comprehension of Spanish, which is a daily source of embarassment.

Touring north along the Panamerican Hiway is not exactly exciting, but it is interesting and easy. The climate changes from maritime down on the island of Chiloé, where the roads are lined with Scots Broom, Fushia and this cute little flowering laurel, and the general verdancy attest to a tendancy toward the misty. As we travel north, 7 or 8 hours a day on the bus (I will admit to feeling abit injured in the kidneys) the fields of recently harvested grain become larger, the windbreaks of pine and lombardy popular stand in straight rows, the air becomes dry and dusty, until finally we are amoung acacia scrub dunes and lengthy plantations of eucalyptus. I begin to get a sense of the great desert that lies to the north of me, tantalizing but unreachable.

The cities I slumber in are unremarkable, a plaza every few blocks, the gente out for evening paseo, ice cream and cake devoured endlessly by these pudgy folks...and myself. The sycamores that line the avenues are turning and losing there leaves in the evening breezes, and I feel a strange melancoly. While I should be delighting in the promise of a new spring, rather I am mourning the passing of a summer I never saw, a strange upheaval of my annual rythym. There will be little to comment on for the next couple of weeks, though I do have a couple of side trips planned to some notable locations. I have certainly been unmotivated to report at times, and I am sure you have grown weary of this rag. But I am determined to finish, post until the final day, and I hope you will stay with me a bit longer. There is more truth to tell.

Friday, March 13

Day 197-Castro

If I were to describe the countryside, the green rolling hills dotted with happy Holsteins, the breaks of huge chestnut and beech trees, the wooden clapboard construction of gabled houses, stately mansard-roofed barns and ornate, multi-towered churches, if I were to tell of how I dined on Schweinefleisch mit Reis, Leibfraumilch and Küchen, you might be led to believe that I had flown off to Bavaria, or West Pennsylvania. But here, unlike the northern climes, the leaves are turning and beginning to drop under the growing autumn wind, and the shingled houses are painted every random color, be it pastel lavender or garish tangerine. Here, is the World Heritage listed "Island of Wooden Churches"-Chiloé. Prevalent are examples of what ingenious self reliant people can do with wood, stone and corrugated tin, from hydraulic grain mills to tricycles to lavish places of worship.

Though passing immigration nearly triggered a random panic attack, and I was called upon, for the first time, to explain my extensive medical kit to customs, coming into Chile was accompanied by a profound comfort and bliss. The prices dropped by half, and my passion and energy for travel more than doubled. As I stroll the alleys and plazas, people actually look me in the eyes and maybe smile a bit as they pass, and for this I find that I feel very much at home. Oddly, it is as if the clock has been reset, as if my journey has just begun. Perhaps because I am deeply aware of the end that is now in sight.

But for now I will enjoy the greener, much wetter, Pacific coast of the continent. And though I am much further north than a week ago, once again the end of the road lies just a few hundred miles to the south. From there one can only travel the inter-island Patagonian fiords by boat. I, however, will be content to call this my farthest southern point in Chile, and will enjoy a day or two in this tranquil fishing village, wandering the colorful streets peopled by squat folks with round faces, almost Inuit in appearance, before slowly heading north to gaze upon a few more mountains before I arrive at my point of final disembarcation.

Wednesday, March 11

Day 195-Bariloche

If you have traveled across southern Wyoming on I-80, you have some idea of the landscape I traversed some days ago. But to complete the picture, place yourself in a bus without air conditioning and only two windows that open. It smells of apples, feet, and liverwurst and the soundtrack for todays journey will be provided by a rabid pack of young Israelis, ranting at the top of their guttural voices, commandeering every unoccupied square foot of space. Slowly we grind along this road that, for 80% percent of its 400 miles, is a loose rock gravel. We pull in late at night to an overcrowded hostel in the middle of nowhere, and in the morning get up and drive across Nevada.

The second day, though much longer, was over primarily paved roads, I had a double seat to myself, and the gang leader was down with a cold, so the day past quite well. The scenery grew increasingly interesting, until, as the sun set, we were twisting and turning up a cool mountain road, approaching our final destination of Bariloche. This tourist town sits lakeside surrounded by high peaks, much like Lake Tahoe, and hosts a wintertime ski resort, as well as limitless chocolate shops. It is pleasant enough, though still on the expensive side, and provides a day's rest with which to get some business done and gear up for my excursion west. Though I might have a day or two back in this country before I fly away, I am sad to admit that my time here has been far too short, I would like another 12 weeks to see more of the ever-changing landscape and get to know better my host.

The Argentinian people, as I have encountered them, are extremely courteous, patient and quite eager to chat, despite my limited supply of phrases. They are generous with the less fortunate, handing out coins to the street beggars or bread to those who ask for something to eat. During my walks, I have encountered large packs, as many as a dozen, of very large, very clean dogs, which under most circumstances would send me up a tree. Here, they are content to just snuffle up against me, walk with me a while, hoping for a crust or caress, then amble on there way. They are definitely the most well mannered canines I have ever come across and I think their demeanor speaks volumes of how their masters comport themselves. As I cross the Andes, and venture into the rainy west coast of the continent, I expect I will be greeted with equal warmth by the people of Chile.

Saturday, March 7

Day 191-El Chalten

In the ancient Chinese divination system, there is used a trigram, "ken", symbolized by the mountain, its attribute is "keeping still". Though I am not in China, I am having to practice, amoungst these spectacular and rugged granite peaks, the art of keeping still. I sat for hours the day before, in existential deliberation, as I silently watched the worlds largest advancing glacier,
El Perito Moreno, waiting for the rifle crack that signaled the birth of yet another iceberg, as this moving sheet of ice thunderously falls into Lago Arentino. I was not disappointed, at the end of the day, I witnessed a detached ice spire, the full 200 foot height by maybe 40 feet thick, slowly teeter, then crash into the lake, causing a swell to crawl across the wind swept surface for a kilometer.

Today was much the same, but for a different subject. Taking the long walk to a hidden lake under the dramatic and infamous Cerro Torre (poster child for Patagonian climbing), the hours passed as clouds danced around the peaks, seemingly generated by the peaks themselves. Slowly they lifted only to regather, shrouding the mystical ice capped summit. My watching and waiting paid off however, for a brief 3 seconds the enveloping cloud thinned and ascended, to reveal a bizarre misshapen mass of granite and ice. All my adult life I believed I would one day see this mountain, once thought I might even climb it. Now at 50, shoulders wrecked and knees fading fast, I am little more than a has-been wanna-be, but I am unspeakably grateful to have been able to make the 10 mile return trip to see it.

My time in Patagonia is far from over, however. I must wait yet another day until a bus rolls through here to take me northward, and when it does, I will be required to sit for 12 hours a day for 2 days to reach a populated destination. The land is bleak, the windy season begun, the tourist throngs are beginning to fade, autumn is coming. But in my solitude I am able to hear what this land is saying, what it requires of me to make a safe passage, and so I will continue to keep still, waiting for windows of clarity and enthusiasm to open through the long days of grey and drudgery.

Wednesday, March 4

Day 188-El Calafate

I awoke today to find a steady rain beating on the metal roof of my centro "penthouse", feeling a bit troubled and altogether unmotivated. I had spent the night watching the story of Rocky Marciano, the only undefeated heavyweight boxer, whose plane when down back in '69. Before me lay a long day of air and ground travel, more than 2000 kilometers, and walking a kilometer in the rain will all my gear was not a pleasant way to start. Twenty minutes into the 3 hour flight, the chop began, stronger than I was used to, and all around me the folks are quiet with eyes closed, their internal dialogue no doubt much like my own, "not today, not this time". Times like this solo travel is especially challenging, with no one to chat and disperse the tension. An hour later all was well as the skies smoothed and the buzz of being on adventure was rekindled.

Here in South America I am meeting many travelers who are content to fly solo. Young dudes from Germany, Holland and Japan, solitary birds like myself, who have been out for seven, nine and even nineteen months. The award for most awesome world travelers, in my mind, now belongs to the Japanese. They go out for long, long trips, armed with just a little English, much less Spanish. We chat for a short while, sharing tales of border crossing anxieties, dramatic sights visited or missed, and our plans for the road ahead, be it short or long. At times I can almost believe that I am one of this elite group.

My road today has led me nearly to where there are no roads, to the end of the world. Only 12 hours by bus lies Ushuaia, the southern most city in the world. Sadly, I will not have time to visit that point on this trip, for there are many more dramatic things to see. I am in the area known as Patagonia, a stark and windswept land of dry grass, stunted bushes, huge glacier fed lakes and rocky peaks scratching the clear deep blue skies. It is nearly the end of summer, and at 52 degrees south, already the changing of the leaves has begun, the mornings cold, made colder by the incessant wind. For several days I will be in this region, suffering slightly, moving carefully. From this point, every step leads me north, closer to "home"

Sunday, March 1

Day 185-San Ignacio Mini

And the winner is--Pedro!--who correctly guessed Buenos Aires, which, as the capital of Argentina, sits at longitude 58.22 W, 34.35 S, and is served by Ezeiza International Airport, code EZE. I thought the code would be a dead give away but rather, it confused some who otherwise might have guessed closer. I thank those of you who participated, and will admit it was just a ruse to discover who might be reading this rag.

As it turned out, my time in Bs. As. was anything but breezy. The flight from Auckland, which takes one from evening to afternoon in 11 short hours, left me fairly jet lagged. On top of that, the immediate immersion into Spanish and the hustle of a capital city left my brain overheated, and unable to quiet itself enough to allow a restful sleep. Feeling unsafe in this zombie-like state, I made a 17 hour overnight beeline to the Misiones province up north, hoping to find some tranquility in a more bulcolic setting. Having acquired a refill to my sleep tonic (melatonin), I was poised to catch some serious Z´s, only to find my shared apartment invaded at 10pm by some of those blasted young people. A quick evacuation and a willingness to throw down some cash found me sleeping profoundly within the hour.

Feeling newly alive and arrived, I proceeded to the my intended destination, that being the cascades of the river Iguazu. I might recommend that you go to Youtube and search for some video, or read about it somewhere. You will find it occupies the top spot in many lists, and I can hardly attempt to describe the place. Imagine a massive river creeping out of the jungles of western Brazil, spreading over a vast floodplain several kilometers wide, then plummeting a few hundred feet over the basaltic edge, recollecting in turbulent pools, and proceeding eastward to the ocean. The sound is deafening, and all about are giggling tourist, mainly from Argentina and Brazil, having the time of their lives amidst the spray of the broken streams and the sea of negative ions floating up from the torment below. The park, naturally Unesco listed, is well constructed with pathways leading along the rivers edge both above and below the numerous cascades, and every overlook allows a new view of the ecstatic plant life nestled amoung the black rock crevasses, all inundated by the troubled green waters. Like so many of the World Heritage Sites, it has to be seen, and more to the point, heard and felt, to be believed, and I tell you, 24 hours later I am still feeling euphoric as I write this.

After such a grand sucess, I have become convinced that I can travel Argentina quite capably, though distances are large and bus rides will be quite long at times. And so, to add to my list of Unesco sites, I have come to the village of San Ignacio, where reside ruins of Jesuit missions, long ago abandoned, but once home to thousands of "saved" Guarani Indians. As I descended the bus into the brightly hot summer streets, I was a bit surprised to find them empty, and even more my surprise when reception at the hotel informed me that no market or restaurant would be open today. My growling stomach will be a gentle reminder to be more mindful of Sunday traveling in Latin America!

Wednesday, February 25

Day 181-???

Have you ever stood below the departure board at the airport and imagined how it would be to just choose some exotic locale, slap down the plastic and be on your way? I certainly have, but must admit, although I am on the trip of a lifetime, I could not bring myself to be so spontaneous. I did however, spend an afternoon a few weeks back reflecting on some serious gaps in my travels. For example, the girl I met and lost from Croatia, I know I could find her if I went back to Split. Also, I have been haunted since leaving Turkey by having missed out on visiting Egypt when I was just that close. Then there is southern India, I missed all of that, and the sticky visa situation prevented me from easily entering China. And where the hell is Uruguay anyway? Or perhaps it is time to hit the road in the West US and start the climbing season. Point is-no one knows where I am right now!

Over the months I have enjoyed telling my simple little stories, none too dramatic, and I have appreciated those who followed along, few though they be. But it has certainly been a one-sided affair, hardly interactive. So now its your turn, switch on your travel brains and use the following clues to determine where in the world is gomelmogel!

1. the sum of latitude and longitude is somewhere between 80 and 100
2. or it could be that the longitude minus the latitude is somewhere between 80 and 100
3. life in this capital city is a breEZE!

You may need to break out the atlas, but you will find the answer quite easily I think. Either way, I will be posting soon from some of the world´s most dramatic locales. I hope I can keep your interest a little longer, I can´t bear the thought of this trip coming to an end!

Monday, February 23

Day 179-Hamilton

2500 kilometers of bitumen now lie behind me and for the many days I have traveled this country, I have been blessed by changable but quite enjoyable weather. While off to the south they are being pelted by torrential rains, I sit today in eternal summer, the air cool and very clean, every green thing and barnyard animal sitting fat and happy. It is supremely idyllic. And so it seems my time in Oceania has been marked by extremes, the restrictive wet of the Top End, the deep summer heat of the Red Center, the flamboyant gaiety of Sydney, now hosting the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. In New Zealand I have witness an extreme of isolation due to my chosen mode of travel, but more importantly I will remember it for the sheer pleasantness of this place. Given enough money and time, the right partner and the right gear, I could enjoy a lifetime of sport down here.

Enjoy an afternoon of viewing "The Lord of the Rings" and you will get a sense of how incredible this landscape is, much of it was filmed here. Today I wandered the slopes of Mordor, vast bogs of tall wispy grasses, wild thyme and various wetland plants, hemmed in by thick forest of mountain beech and umbrella ferns, all watched over by demonic towers of broken basalt. As I traversed the delightfully haunting landscape, quiet under the unpredictable gray skies, I pondered my time in Oceania.

Countries: 2 Days spent: 28
Distance traveled: 7050mi $/day: 108
Unesco sites: 4 Other sites: 18
Most Southern point: Balclutha, 46.2deg south
Unremarkable I think except for the great distance and cost.

So tomorrow is the big day, time to make the long flight across the big pond. For the many hours I will spend in the air, I have plenty to fondly recall, the stately romance of old Europe, the deep history of Turkey, the sheer incredulity of India, the hidden charms of Southeast Asia, and the primordial bizarrity that is Australia. Please don't leave me yet, dear reader, come back and visit, that I might post some final thoughts. This trip is not over yet!

Friday, February 20

Day 176-Richmond

I am perched on the edge of my seat as I negotiate the endless twist and turns of this mountain road. I pass through a bowery of tall and knarled beech trees, themselves and every neighboring bush and fern dripping with moss and moisture. It is raining quite hard and the splash-up from the passing lumber trucks blinds me for vital seconds at a time. I dread that the whole day might continue like this, but soon the forest opens into a tawny fieldscape of harvested rye grass, stately evergreen hedgerows, and the ubiquitous flocks of sheep, now quite dreary, drenched and apparently smelly. A fierce wind blast out of every open canyon mouth, dashing for the sea from the high, shrouded ice-blue glaciers. A few kilometers on, and a view of the tumultuous sea opens before me, the waves wind-lashed, the twisted pines crawling out of the dunes grow at odd angles, having been assaulted by the gales since sprouthood.

But just yesterday, I was enjoying the intense sunlight lakeside, listening to the gentle lap of the waves on a slate-gray pebbly shore, marveling at the clarity of the aquamarine waters, wishing I could submerge myself and forever drink in the refreshing coolness. I climbed a steep trail, hindered by rocks and roots, through the dappled tree ferns and oak, until, drenched with the sweat of effort and humidity, I arrived at a high glacial lake, sharp forbidding peaks all around. New Zealand is a land of many faces, many changes, and one need travel only a few hours or a few kilometers to witness a procession of splendor.

But I have been traveling already 6 days and a couple thousand kilometers, and so have seen much of this land. More striking however, is my march through my internal landscape. Since leaving the Outback of Australia almost two weeks ago, I have had virtually no conversations with anyone. The style of travel here, that is, everyone in their own vehicle, lends itself to isolation. At night, at the caravan parks, each couple proceeds with their chores, as if they are camping in a world without others, happily ignoring the battle for bathroom or kitchen space. I am not uncomfortable in this game, and play my part as the quiet, invisible, odd solo traveler. What has become very notable to me, as I drive and walk hour after hour in silence, is that, in the absence of another, it becomes impossible to tell a lie. And so it has been a very interesting time for me, facing the truth of what I have become, of what steps have lead me here. I feel I am ready and able to withstand the twist and turns and tumults of whatever road lies ahead.

Tuesday, February 17

Day 173-Fiordlands N.P.

I felt damn lucky to get out of Sydney. My flight was inexplicably canceled, and they held me in line for two hours just to grace me with the fact that they would fly me out at 7 pm, which was not acceptable with a 1 am arrival in Christchurch. Annoyed, I dashed off to talk to other airlines and was eager to buy another ticket with Emirates, but when he asked to see proof of onward flight from New Zealand, my hopes diminished. I had booked an e-ticket east a couple of weeks earlier but I had no paper evidence of this. A mad dash upstairs to the airline office (surprisingly open on a Sunday morning) resulted in the necessary printout, and by the time I got back to the desk, there was just one seat left, which I gladly snatched. At 80% of the original price, with premier lunch service and entertainment system, I could say with conviction "Alls well that ends well".

Now I am happily in New Zealand, and happily on the road in a beater Toyota rental. With already 800 kilometers behind me I am perched on the Southwest side of the South Island, prepared to take a walk tomorrow in this Unesco listed National Park. Getting here brought me through some dramatic countryside, rolling hills and farms dotted with more sheep than one could count in a lifetime of sleepless nights. It is altogether very reminiscent of the parklands of central Colorado. On the other side of the hiway, ocean looms large, the angry rollers come crashing to shore, after a long and icy ride up from Antartica. Huge beds of kelp slosh about in the shallows, and walking about the beachside stones and boulders, I was so enchanted that I failed to notice a big bull sea lion waddling for the safety of the surf, with me in the way. Fortunately they move quite slowly and I had plenty of time to wake up, take a pic, and clear out. Still I cannot be sure I am out of danger, for I must constantly remind myself to stay alert and on the left side of the road as I continue my auto tour of through this magical landscape.

Saturday, February 14

Day 170-Sydney

I will not deny that the last few days have been a wee depressing. I awake each morning, not so well rested, since I am in dollar saving mode and spending the night in shared dorm rooms. It has been raining here on the southeast coast ever since I left the Blue Mountains, and though it is sporadic and light, the grey skies hampers my enthusiam. My new shoes hurt abit as I break them in and that takes the joy out of walking. On top of that, it is Valentines Day, and I am so very far from being in a participant in that event, I can't remember the last holiday that I spent in the company of someone I know. Its all beginning to wear on me a bit.

Despite the torments of my inner psyche, I must make note of what a lovely city Sydney is. Though it has been years since I have been to Seattle, I consider them to be sister cities, both surrounding the ocean bay, broken by hills into discreet and pleasant neighborhoods, both home to liberal thought and alternative lifestyles. I have enjoyed the day walking the harbour, delighting in the unique architecture of the Harbour Bridge and of course that building from an alien planet, the Sydney Opera House. Wending my way back through the excellent botanical gardens, awash in the pleasing odors of rain, wisteria, and rose, I stopped now and then to take in the sight of the futuristic skyscrapers lording over the hundred year old fig trees, gums of every sort, and wollemi pines If ever I was inclined to put down a root and attempt to become ex-pat, for a number of reasons, it would be here.

But I am not putting down a root, instead tomorrow I board a plane for yet another step eastward. On to the otherworldly landscape of New Zealand, where I will enjoy the freedom and solitude of travel by rental car, stopping when and where I wish, basking in sunshine, warm temperatures and sylvan quietude. After the last few days spent in the hostels, surrounded by hordes of 20something backpackers, I cannot get enough of that.

Wednesday, February 11

Day 167-Katoomba

Sometimes things just fall in place. Way back in Darwin I had decided to skip the Outback extension from Alice Springs to Adelaide, in favor of a quick flight to Sydney. That turned out to be a great decision, as residents of that town are suffering from the worst fires in history, with thousands of homes destroyed and hundreds dead. In addition, Sydney has turned out to be yet another in a long line of world's greatest cities, but I will write more about it in a future post.

Leaving Sydney this morning required that I negotiate its rather complex and complete railway system, but once done, I was merrily rolling up the tracks to the Central Highlands of New South Wales. Here are found many of the Unesco listed National Parks, among them Blue Mountain, which gets its name from the blue haze that hangs over the hills, a by-product of the millions of eucalypt trees that carpet the hills. I arrived to find this rain forest completely shrouded in mist, and the prospect of hiking along the rim of the 200 meter high sandstone escarpment was, for lack of view, not too promising. Instead I wandered town, found a great deal on some new shoes, as well as some other necessary gear, then walked over to the Imax theatre to view "The Edge", a documentary about this park.

I learned that Australia is very unique on this planet, not only for its extreme climate, but also for its geologic age. The surrounding hills had already been shaped while the Grand Canyon was just a gleam in God's eye. The geology has been stable for 100 million years, and this leads to a very sterile soil, which along with eons of physical separation from the other continents, creates a diversity of plant and animal life unrivaled on all the planet. Knowing this, I was not able to sit still any longer, and headed to the end of town to access the park. Minutes after my arrival at the first overlook, the skies opened to reveal the majestic view of the distant hills, the escarpment, and the rollling valley below. Walking the 5 km along the rim was a sensory paradise, every green thing dripping fresh rain from its odd shaped leaves, the air rich with the scent of new oxygen, wet earth, and most notably, eucalyptus oil! Powerful medicine for the nasally challenged, and in my free-breathing euphoria I was grateful for every step that had lead me to this place.

Now about them shoes. Today is Feb 11th. My original plan had me flying into Salt Lake City on this date. Clearly that is not going to happen, and in celebration of my exceeding my own expectations, I decided to replace my well-worn Merrills. I reckon I have a few more tracks to make before this journey is over.

Sunday, February 8

Day 164-The Outback

My Survivor Outback Adventure began in Alice Springs, where myself and 13 tribe members packed into a minivan led by our laid-back Aussie guide, Paul. From the start, we told that it would be quite hot, quite fly infested, and quite interesting. On no account were we disappointed. A longs days drive, through the searing and sandy acacia plains, culminated at the base of Ayers Rock. I first became aware of this very special stone, the heart of Australia, back in my younger climber daze. It is the second largest largest monolithic, unbroken stone in the world, and measures some 350 meters high by 3.6 kilometers long by 2.4 kilometers wide. That's one big stone, but then consider that only 1/3 of it rises above the desert plains. It has recently been returned to the Aboriginal people who still hold ceremony amoung the hidden crevices and pockets, and is now known as Uluru National Park.

As we left the comfort of the air-conditioned van, we were immediately accosted by hordes of black flys and temperatures in the shade of 106. The rock, of course, becomes much hotter, and there was no hope of climbing this behemoth in these conditions. Even the short walk along the base, exploring a few of the waterholes and overhanging crevices, was taxing. Having experienced such conditions in the south of Utah in summer, I was well prepared with full brim hat, complete with fly net, long pants and water-soaked long sleeves. I was surprised to find some of our tribe braving the blaze in shorts, tank top, and sun screen, but I was out to school anyone in the way of the wild.

The next day, after a rather sparse open air sleep in the desert( I awoke in substantial pain, convinced that an ant had crawled down my throat and bit me!) we drove off to a neighbooring park known as Kata Tjuta (Many Heads). We stopped to enjoy breakfast amidst swarms of flies, watched the changing colors of sunrise, and then proceeded to embark upon a 8 km walk through the thousand foot high hummocks of crimson conglomerate stone. My tribemates, again scantily clad, started off strong, but by half-way the fright showed in their flushed faces, their heavy breath powering their heavy legs. Along the way we were regaled with tales of bush tradition, the severe punishments doled out to law breakers, and the abandonment of those too weak to continue. I took this attitude to heart, and as others lagged and dragged, I just kept moving on at my own pace, feeling protected, comfortable and somewhat superior. Despite my tendency to separate myself, however, nights back at camp found all forgiven and we enjoyed beers and tales of bravado around the campfire. There would be no Tribal Council tonight, and because the Outback is big enough for all to enjoy, we all would continue the adventure.

Thursday, February 5

Day 161-Alice Springs

My little foray in to the bush country of the Top End might have cost me dearly. I did well enough with the unrelenting heat, the intermittent rains, the evening time mosquitos, but what nearly did me in was some yahoo in a parking lot dinging the door of the rent a car. I noticed it a couple of days before return and interestingly it was not visible in the rain, only in bright sunlight. I had purchased full insurance yes, but I was still liable for up to 300 bucks and to repair even the smallest scratch would easily cost that. I toyed with the idea of not mentioning it, to see if the counter guy was doing his job, but in the end, I am my mother's son, and I felt compelled to 'fess up. My honesty paid off. He searched hard to find it, and when he did said "no worrys mate", kind of annoyed that I had wasted his time.

Inspired then to keep pushing my luck, I boarded the world famous Ghan railway, which would take me from Darwin 1500 kilometers into the Red Center, the very heart and soul of this country, the Outback. Along the way, stopping in Katherine for a rather lengthy 4 hour break, we were encouraged to take a 12 dollar bus ride into town to see the sights. What they failed to mention is the only sight there is to see in this scrubby town, which lies at the junction of the four directions, is a surfeit of wandering, shoeless, semi-enebriated Aboriginals. From all corners they collect here to receive government stipend and services, do some shopping, hang out with friends, and for some at least, get liquored up. It was so strange to walk the small town and encounter group after group, gathered under a tree, under the bridge, outside the Woolworths, or in front of the bus station.

They don't appear, at first glance, to be a highly spirited people. The don't seem to talk alot, or smile, or move with great conviction, at least in these disheartening circumstances. They, as a group, are overweight, with huge bellies and breasts, and stick-thin arms and legs. There facial features are remarkably heavy, thick brows over deep set eyes, broad round noses shelter their protruding lips. Even the young have a look of aged weariness about them. For my lack of knowledge of this people and culture, I can not say whether this is the face of the natural first inhabitant of this land, or if like much of the the Native population of our own country, they have been misshapen and injured by a diet of sugar, bad fats, and alcohol. If things go as planned for me, I will be meeting a few of them in their element, in the Outback, and hope to deepen my understanding of this fascinating and troubled people.

Sunday, February 1


Each day now Kengaroo travels, each day tired, needs rest. He meet Iguana, she tells him "go to Morning Camp, camping good there". So he go. At at Morning Camp, two Ravens, loud, scream at him, "Kenga, go away, this camp not good, you do not belong here". Kenga stays, thinks "this is ok, the world loves me, I belong here", but he wonders. Out walking he comes by family of Man, faces dark as night, proud wide nose. They don't look at him, they don't speak, Kenga thinks, "ok, they welcome me, I belong here", but he wonders.
Night falls and all creatures say goodnight. Make loud shriek and roar and cry. Kenga is little scared, but he knows he belongs. He finds sleep in the black hot night.
Dark midnight, everything still, everything is peace. But no! From out of the dark comes mad screaming demon, eyes like fire. It wakes Kenga, circles his camp, throws sand at him. Up ahead it stops, shining bright angry eyes at Kenga. His animal heart know this is bad. Less than one hundred heartbeats, he gathers his medicine, makes ready to flee. From the dark forest he hears eery singing "if you love me get down on your knees, if you no love me, then you better leave!"
Kenga breaks from the bush at a mad run. His animal mind remembers the maze of tracks he must take to get out. He recalls a camp not too far, maybe he can find others, be safe.
He finds other camp ok, but it is late. Noone there, everybody sleeping. Kenga hunkers down in the moonlight, hopes for morning to come. But no! crazy lights coming, seeking for him. He hides lower to the ground, remembers "the world loves me". Before long a knock comes, he turns to find Man But White, saying, "ok mate, camp here, out back, no worries, morning come, you go your way". Kenga thinks "ok i can do this", but still he wonders. The rain begins to fall, Kenga sits and wonders, "who rode this demon horse". Was it Man, or Man But White, or maybe some new devil beast risen from the billabong? He slips into quiet sleep.

I start awake from a fitful slumber, completely drenched in a foul sweat. My neck is kinked from cramming myself into the back seat of this rent a car. The rain is beating down hard, a tribal tattoo on the metal roof, the floodwater rising against the tires. Four o'clock, just a couple more hours and daylight comes, I can go back, collect my abandoned tent, and continue my journey.

Saturday, January 31

Day 156-Kakadu

Braving equatorial heat and monsoon rains, this National Park, Australia's largest, is host to a vast number of plant and animal species. This time of year, heavy rains are a daily occurence, and massive sheets of water pour off the rocky plateau forming the southern boundary. The ensuing waterfalls are spectacular and dangerous, the rivers downstream bisect the woodlands of white barked eucalyptus, where emerald green grass grows higher than a man head, and scattered about are the mounds of cathedral building termits, more than 3 meter high. The rivers overflow, flooding roadways (most are impassable this time of year) and vast plains and forest of pandamus and paperbark trees, they now become home to wading storks, cranes and herons, yellow bellied pythons and water rats. Signs warning of saltwater crocodiles, migrating up the seasonal waterways are common place. As the Wet passes, some low lying areas will retain there water level and become billabongs, and the wildlife will become more concentrated, some will seek shelter in the drying mud until next year. Along river banks and hilltop ridges monsoonal rainforest of ghost gum are scattered about, home to the cockatoo and every other type of raucous bird.

But this huge park, Unesco listed, is also home to a 50,000 year old, still-living human culture. Among the marshes, forest and billabongs, wander the Bininj people, one among the many clans of Aboriginal people that this country is famous for. Still they hunt for possum, snake, wallaroo and forage for pandamus fruits, palm hearts, and medicines. They appear aloof and unconcerned and in fact are rarely seen off of their settlements out in the bush. Along the rocky escarpment, in hidden overhangs and folds, they have left traces of their past. Stories of creation and hunting tales are inscribed in paints of yellow, black, and red ocher. They tell of a time long ago when the earth was perfect, the Dreamtime. I spend the day wandering among these rocks, admiring the ancient paintings and gazing out over the broad and timeless landscape. I stop to have a brief conversation with a shy black wallaby, I feel as if still, the world is a perfect place.

Thursday, January 29

Day 160-Darwin

At the top end of down under, heavy-set, lily white, dimpled women walk to work in the sweltering humidity. They seem none the worse for the clowing heat, eager to put in their days toil so as to earn a soon coming night at the pub. At ever government building or park stand small crowds of Aborigines, shoeless and unsmiling, they scarcely notice my passing.

I have been scurrying about, collecting supplies and a rent a car, preparing to go "into the bush".
It is the hot, wet season (in fact the south of the country is under record breaking heat, at around 45 degrees centigrade (I don't even want to know what that is on our scale)) and so I don't expect to get far, as every surface not under asphalt will be unpassable. Still I hope to find opporunities to walk about the billabongs and marsh parks, seeking birds and plants yet unknown, hoping to avoid snakes and skeeters. I will be camping, cramped in my tiny new tent, every moment out of the car will be a festival of sweltering and fly driven annoyance.

To enjoy this mini-adventure I will and already have laid down some serious cash. Coming from Vietnam, the shock of price escalation for everything from transport to lodging, has only been asssuaged by the ready availability of donuts, peaches and other familiar treats. If I sound uncertain as to whether this next phase of my travels will be fun or will go well, it is because I most certainly am!

Tuesday, January 27

Day 158-In the Air

Time for a report on my travels through Indochina:

Countries visited: 2 Distance traveled: 2662 miles
Day out: 33 Dollars per day: 44
Unesco Sites visited: 5 Other cool sites: 10
Birds counted(non-captive): <100 Scooters counted: 2.737,569

But these numbers are empty, they say nothing of the color and clamor of the capital cities at this time of the New Year, fail to paint a picture of family togetherness so prevalent in these countries, or of the atrocities of the wars that have ravaged this land. Had I witnessed earlier the collection of photographs presented in the War Remembrance Museum here in Saigon, I might have not completed my trip, unable to look these people in the face. Before such images, my words are empty.

Tonight, after 3 months, I will leave Asia. Three months of strange foods, each day becoming more familiar. Three months of the blare and rumble of traffic, unrelenting, always shocking. A season walking among the smells of frangipani and frankincense, urine and durian fruit, now oddly comforting. Three months of pacing the streets teeming with faces, old women squatting on the sidewalk, chopping and boiling the midday meal, beggars with innumerable afflictions, slowly or rapidly diminishing, fathers in love with their sons, bold schoolgirls waving hello to this tall, stern stranger.

I have walked beneath the cold shoulders of the worlds highest mountains, crawled through hot musty tunnels no larger than my shoulders, ridden rickety trains under giant trees, paddled muddy waters through spiny palm groves. I have learned that the world loves me, it protects and emboldens me. The powers that be have opened the roads and portals, that I might pass freely to where my desire leads. The skies have opened before me, revealing vistas of emerald fields, shining mountain peaks, grey sentinels guarding a moonlit bay. The faces before me are open, the most radiant smiles given by those most destitute. All that has been required of me is to open my mind to the promise of the path ahead...and of course to open my wallet. But in these times of such enormous prosperity and possibility, how can one be reluctant to do so.

Saturday, January 24

Day 149-Saigon

Let me be the first to wish you a Happy Chinese New Year, occuring on Monday, the first new moon of the calendar year. All around me people are preparing for the years biggest festival, and I for one, securely esconced in my downtown hotel room, am ready! The last few days, and those to follow, have been, and promise to be, action packed.

Leaving the seaside a couple of days back, I jumped a rather empty minibus for the central highland city of Dalat. But for myself, there was just one other woman with her infant, and as we negotiated the steep and windy road, I had to marvel at the facility with which she held her seat, her baby and the bag she was puking in. Clearly she had traveled this road before, and for good resason. Dalat is a delightful resort town amidst pine-clad hills, with lakes, streams and waterfalls strewn all about, filled with honeymooners from the lowland cities, but most interesting, quite lacking in an English based tourism. This did not deter me from taking a half day mountain bike tour with a local guide, enjoying the quiet of the hills, the temples, and a speechless companion.

The quiet now forgotten as I pace the streets of Saigon, teeming with scooters and scammers and throngs of common folk gearing up for the big week ahead. With a fresh two beer buzz, I explore the extraordinary flower market, a block wide by four long. Chrysanthemum, daisy, sunflower and mum provide the predominant yellow tone of New Years, accented by the scarlet of rose, amaranth, and gladiola. Artful bonsai of pine, laurel, and fig are displayed for sale, as are superb carvings of sandalwood, teak and marble. Incense fills the air, children dance to an unvoiced music, lovers pose among the flowers for if this scene could be forgotten!

Tomorrow I seek a less urban scene as I tour out to the Mekong Delta to visit the simple riverside villages that provide this nation with fruits and honey and coconut. Later I will travel out to the Cu Chi tunnels to learn something about the American War of the '60's, a subject thus far avoided by me. There I hope to gain some perspective on American-Viet relations, and more to my interest, shoot some really big guns! It seems a completely appropriate way to help celebrate the New Year.

Wednesday, January 21

Day 146-Nha Trang

Although the beach is not empty of people, at 6 kilometers, it is long enough to lend a feeling of peace and solitude. Scarce are the hawkers and trickster found on so many tourist beaches, and surprisingly, I have to chase someone down to find the cold beers that are proper to this moment. The air is warm, the sun hot, but not to excess. It is altogether a soothing way to spend an afternoon of girl watching.

As I reflect on my time in Vietnam, I find, in general, things have gone very smoothly. I have experienced none of the ripoffs and misquoted prices that I had been warned about. Perhaps I am possessing some degree of travel skill, perhaps I am lucky. I have met a few lately that are neither. Just a few days back, it was thrust upon me to usher a small herd of lost tourist to their hotels. They had been abandoned riverside in the middle of Hue at the end of their day tour, and for having been picked up that morning by van, they knew not the route back. The first four were easy, I knew this part of town. The next two didnt even know the name of their hotel and that was a much greater challenge, but together we deduced the location. Though it took two hours and cost me a few bucks, I considered it my birthday present to the world that day.

Since then I have continued on, to the extraordinary and charming town of Hoi An, where centuries old tradition meet the modern world in a fascinating spread of artisans shops, out to the remote hillside temples of My Son (the most disappointing of all Unesco Sites) and finally by long day train through the rolling hills and rice paddies to this sprawling but quiet beach town. Arriving late at night, I walked from the train station to the center, marvelling at what felt like a warm summer breeze, seemingly out of place under the sky filled with winter stars.

Saturday, January 17

Day 142-Hue

Here in the Imperial City of Hue, along the clean, green Perfume River, the centuries-old Citadel squats and crumbles in the gray drizzle of the early morning. Only the local market is alive with bright colors and strong odors. It is my birthday, my fiftieth, a day for reflection. Years back a friend of mine enjoyed her 50th amidst fanfare, friends and family. Knowing that my destiny had given me a different path, I began then to make plans for this round the world trip, vowing that I would be far away and alone when that day arrived for me. I am. And in a host of other instances of coordination and cooperation I have suceeded, but in days past I have also had some notable failures.

Trekking the hill country last week, I was fortunate to have as part of my group two very lovely ladies from Croatia, and one in particular really captured my interest. In our brief conversations we connected deeply and I was reminded that I once believed in love at first sight. On the train back to Hanoi our paths crossed, and we arranged to share a cab and breakfast before they left for the airport and home. As we made our way to exit the station, we learned that we needed our ticket, and I had left mine crumpled on the floor of the car. Amidst the hustle and crush of the moment, in a hurry to run back before the train left, I was unable to think, and lacking the practice to ask them to wait, I simply said goodbye. The Bhuddists say it takes 10,000 lifetimes for two people to meet, this encounter now lost forever, "like tears in the rain".

This failure of thinking has injured my heart, but another failure of emotion could have cost me dearly. The other night, fed up with a slow internet that keep crashing, I slapped down my payment and stormed out, cursing. Overzealous as I exited, I caused the door to swing wide, scratching the hood of a motorbike parked too close. As I continued mumbling down the street, the owner pursued me, and showed me the damage. I am practiced at accepting responsibility, so immediately offered to pay for the damage. But he was an honest man and did not wish to profit in this way, I think he only wanted to vent his anger and hear me admit my mistake. He generously waved me on, and I, gratefully, humbly, dashed for home.

I will continue to pass this day reflecting on the sucesses and failures of my past 50 years, and in particular the last 5 months. In doing, I hope to shape a vision of what I might achieve in my months and years remaining. And if I find that I have made too many errors on this grand trip, well then I shall just have to do it again!

Wednesday, January 14

Day 136-Cat Ba Town

After the success of my packaged tour to Sa Pa, I decided to continue the trend and book a 3 day 2 night visit to the UNESCO listed Halong Bay, a scattering of 3000 limestone islands jutting out of the still waters of the South China Sea, off the coast of Northeastern Vietnam. The tourist travel system here is an amazingly complex network of agencies, guides, transport and accommodations, and it seem to work flawlessly, as I am passed from one person to another, enjoying the assigned activities and merely doing what I am told. For a mere $30 or so a day, I am shuttled, entertained, fed and housed, and because I am sure I could not do better as an independent traveler, I accept my role as tourist.

After a morning of bus riding across the country, we arrived at the bay, and boarded a modified chinese junk, complete with kitchen, dining room and simple cabins. We enjoyed an afternoon of cruising among the 200 meter high limestone pillars, stopping once or twice to visit one of the many caves so common in the karst landscape, later boarding kayaks, to glide into the setting sun over the placid waters. The night was spent bobbing about a tranquil bay with a score of other boats, their running light reflecting off the still waters until the full moon rose to wash the entire scene in a pale glow.

The delicate beauty continued to unfold before us the next day as we landed on Cat Ba Island, drove into the interior and huffed and puffed our way 300 meters up a nearby peak. Our activities finished for the day, we settled in Cat Ba town, once a sleepy fishing village, now a burgeoning destination for summertime Vietnamese vacationers. The adjoining bay is abuzz with all manner of floating transports, from steel hulled cargo ships to the most humble tub of woven mat dressed with pine pitch. An entire village of multicolored floating houses, shops and holding tanks is moored in the shallows, and I spend the twilight watching the activity settle with the fading light. Once again I am made aware that the majority of this worlds people are living a life dramatically simpler than my own. I retire to my room at the 3 star hotel, enjoy a warm bath and a spot of telly before settling into my cozy bed. Life is Sweet.

Sunday, January 11

Day 136-Ta Van Village

It is quite easy to escape the madness of Old Quarter Ha Noi. Simply step into one of countless shops selling travel tours, and within minutes they will have you on a bus, brimming with like minded souls, on your way to the mountainous rice basket of the north, Sa Pa Valley. The overnight train, wood paneled and warm, whisk you throught the night, arriving so early that you still have not seen the glory of the steep green slopes that surround you. You are coddled and caressed as they bring you to your hotel and start you on your guided activities.

I had the good fortune to be part of a group of 10 or 12, mainly women from all quarters, young and willing to share some trail time with this old goat. Our guide, Lan, all of 4' tall, scampered the steep, slick trails with ease, giggling merrily as she explained the ways of the mountain tribes we would encounter. Here are found members of the Black Hmong people, the Red Doa, the Dzai, the Flower Hmong, each with their characteristic and colorful style of dress. As we walked we were accompanied by hordes of local women and children, patiently awaiting their turn to offer us a selection of hand made wares. When a women of thirty going on seventy walks for four hours in hopes of selling a trinket for 4 dollars, one realizes the simplicity of the lifestyle these people still embrace.

After a long day of wending our way along roads, paths, rice fields, and rickety bridges, we arrived at the small village of Ta Van, where, after enjoying a five course meal of rice, chicken, pork, and limitless vegetables, we bunked down with the family in a common room. It is the last full moon before the New Year, and it is winter, so we could not be surprised to find the temperature a bone chilling 40some degrees. Thanks to a heap of the heaviest blankets I have ever used, the night passed in great comfort, and we were greeted to a breakfast of rice pancakes and fruit. Setting off again into the sunny morning, we passed men and boys of all ages, dragging oversized logs down the slick slopes, not pausing to notice us, as we continued our search of new vistas of a timeless land and people.

Wednesday, January 7

Day 132-Ha Noi

I looked deep into the old guys rheumy eyes, asking myself if it was his day to die, because if it was, he was taking me with him. I had just enjoyed a visit to the Vietnam Museum of Ethnography, a splendid collection of artifacts from all over this country of scores of distinct ethnic tribes. On display were the tools of home and garden, musical instruments of every bizarre construction, funereal implements, and outside, a courtyard filled with the very houses these tribesmen might have lived in.

I had arrived by taxi from the bustling city center some 7 kilometers away, and had bargained hard for a reasonable price. The return trip, of course, is always an extortionist dream. So when the old man held up 4 fingers and pointed to his moto, I was left with the choice, bleed through the wallet, or if unlucky, in the street. Feeling confident, I joined him on the mad scramble back into center, each intersection an interwoven flow of hundreds of bikes, a few taxis, and scores of intrepid pedestrians. The bikes especially carry a stunning array of passengers. I have seen up to four people on a single bike, a driver carrying two potted plans in his arms, a woman hauling at least 100 baskets, another was guided by a dozen laden shopping bags dangling from the handlebars, and it seems everyone is on the cell phone. I have also witnessed a partying threesome take a tumble, an old man pick himself up and limp off the interstate, and one young guy quite motionless in the highway.

My fears then, I thought were well founded. But fate is on my side today and we arrived safe and sound at my destination. As I extracted my wallet to pay, however, I learned that his four fingers meant 4 dollars, not 40000 dong (2 dollars). Curses and drats, I could have taken the taxi after all for that price, but then I would have missed out on the thrills!

Sunday, January 4

Day 129-Vang Vien

Rounding yet another bend on this tortuous mountain road, the girl next to me assuredme she would not vomit, only that she feel quite bad. Just minutes earlier we were chatting away, she was excitedly filling me in on various nuances of the Laos culture, and for my part I was delighted to have finally made a personal connection with a local. We were southbound out of Luang Prabang, passing through settlements so rustic, barely a stitch of metal or concrete could be seen, the material of choice for the construction of their village-bamboo, thatch and woven slats, all easily found in the mountain jungle surrounding. As we topped out on the pass, we were greeted with the sight of Bu Khun, Equal Mountain, more a citadel or tower, which in more temperate climes would have been a dramatic crag of sheer rock, here even the vertical faces were carpeted in foliage. It was a preview of what was to follow down the road.

Arriving in Vang Vien, I immediately elected it as one of the most desirable places I had ever visited. The air temperature a perfect 72 degrees, a bit of breeze, a bright warming sun bathing a dramatic karst limestone scenery. A cool, clear and inviting river flowed through the valley of rice fields now in stubble, groups of crude houses sheltering young vegetable gardens. The town itself was a backpackers paradise, loads of internet shops, bars and restaurants that offered beds rather than seats, the easier to enjoy the endless reruns of American sitcoms. The outlying caves, cliffs, trails and rivers attract a young and active crowd, often scantily clad as they emerge from their tube bourne booze cruise down the Nam Song. It is all incredibly scenic, the Lao must find it obscene, a bit, and I am happy to have seen it.

Thursday, January 1

Day 126-Luang Prabang

In a village where the generators are hushed at 10pm, the lights go out, and all that might be expected in the way of a New Years celebration is the splash of bright stars against the dark jungle sky. So it was in Pakbeng, a remote village along the Mekong river, 160 kilometers upriver from where I sit today. For two days, I and a host of international travelers have motored down the muddy waters, now in the dry season, placid and tame. We gaze upon the green hills that slope gently away from the sandy banks, where ever more remote settlements, surrounded by their newly planted corn fields, are separated by patches of broken boulders.

It is a pleasant and interesting float trip, but a rather long 8 hours each day, and so, after a time of introspectively watching the world go by, one turns ones attention to ones fellows. And that has proved to be the more interesting feature of the last couple of day. I have had the privledge of swapping travel tales with a cadre of very well seasoned wanderers indeed, from the single Dutch lady who made her way solo from Kunming to Shanghai, China, back in the mid 90s, when she was the only white face on the train, to the Ubermensch Tyler, family man, business man, smoker!, who has summitted and skied the worlds sixth highest peak, to an unnamed Kiwi couple who have slept in graveyards in India, ride motorcycles like they stole them, and read Heradotus in their spare time. A truly fascinating crew.

But alone again here in Luang Prabang, I have my work cut out for me. The Lao people are new to tourism, and one gets the sense that they are uncertain about our being here, very unlike Bali or Thailand. And lets face it, I do not have the friendliest of mugs, so they look at me much as do dogs and small children, unsure whether to cry, bark, or run away. So, besides the formidable task of arranging food, lodging and transport in a country that scarcly speaks English, removing my shoes each time I enter a dwelling, placing my head below the level of passing monks-a short people they are-I must remember to be the first to put a smile on my face.